Unskilled and Unaware, the Dunning-Kruger Effect

In 1995, McArthur Wheeler robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight and made his escape. Remarkably, he looked directly at multiple security cameras during the robberies with no attempt of covering his face. His picture was broadcast that evening on the 11pm news and he was arrested an hour later. Investigators later learned that Wheeler had rubbed lemon juice on his face and was under the impression that doing so would make him invisible to cameras. He reasoned that lemon juice can be used as an invisible ink on paper, so if he rubbed it on his entire face he would become invisible to cameras. This type of amazing ignorance is surprising, but sadly not unusual.

Prompted by Wheeler’s bank robbery, two researchers from Cornell University, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, began studying the accuracy of self-assessment. They wondered how people could be such poor judges of their own abilities. Their research was published in a 1999 report titled, “Unskilled and Unaware of It.”

Now dubbed the Dunning–Kruger effect, these researchers explored an important concept that all experts should know and recognize. It is human nature for unskilled people to be horribly poor judges of their own ability. They fail to recognize their own lack of skill and are poor judges of the skills of others. This is true across any discipline or industry. Whether we are talking about dancers, painters, sociologists or mathematicians, the lowest quartile of performers have the most inflated opinion of their own ability.

This phenomenon can be particularly frustrating for experts. Time and again you will encounter uneducated, untrained, or unskilled people who think, speak, and act as if they are proficient, when they clearly are not. Charles Darwin recognized this phenomenon when he penned, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

As an expert you might prefer that the unskilled people around you knew they were unskilled. But this, unfortunately, is not to be. Experts should expect unskilled people to have inflated opinions of their own capability. That is, simply, the way it is. Yet too often experts are surprised and even aghast when they encounter the “unskilled and unaware.”

Unfortunately, there is very little an expert can do to quickly reverse the Dunning-Kruger effect. Confronting the novice will not rectify an inflated perception. Telling the untrained that they are untrained more often fosters resentment than cooperation. Pointing out the failings of the beginner will not reduce his opinion of himself, but it will reduce his opinion of you.

It turns out that there is one remedy to the Dunning-Kruger effect, but it takes time to accomplish. The remedy to Dunning-Kruger is proficiency. The better trained a person is at a task the better judge she becomes of her own skill. And, once a person becomes proficient his perception of his skills becomes more accurate. Through this process he also gains an appreciation for the skills of the truly expert.

It is almost always the least skilled people who hold the highest degree of illusory superiority. Even the moderately skilled individuals maintain a higher opinion of themselves than is justified. It is only the truly proficient who underestimate their own abilities.

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