Dunning-kruger effect: why the half-knowledgeable think they’re especially smart

People with little knowledge in particular often overestimate their own abilities – while misjudging the achievements of more competent people. Why is that?

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a popular scientific term that describes the excessive overconfidence of incompetent people.

One of the strangest bank robberies took place in Pittsburgh in 1995. In broad daylight, an unmasked man robbed two cash branches. He obviously did not care about the video cameras. When the handcuffs closed a little later and the police played the surveillance footage for him, his astonishment was great. He was convinced that he had not acted recklessly at all. After all, he had carefully rubbed his face with lemon juice before the robbery to make himself unrecognizable to the cameras.

The overestimation of the incompetent

Four years later, the inventive bank robber caused a second stir. For his case served the American psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger as a prime example of a phenomenon that was to find its way into popular science as the Dunning-Kruger effect. According to this, incompetent people conspicuously often overestimate their own abilities – while at the same time underestimating the performance of more competent people. The dilemma: they are not even aware of it.

The two psychologists described the effect for the first time in 1999. As part of a series of studies, they had students take logic and grammar tests, among other things. Afterwards, the participants were asked to assess how well they did compared to the other subjects. The result: Of all people, those with the worst results believed to have found the best solutions. And not only that: when they were allowed to look at the tests of the better participants, they were still convinced of their supposed superiority.

Millions of better national coaches

We encounter the Dunning-Kruger effect almost everywhere. You don’t have to wait for the next World Cup for that, when millions of soccer fans are rock-solidly convinced that they can make better decisions than the professional coaching team.

Our everyday life is characterized by oblique self-assessments. Most young male drivers, for example, believe they can drive better than the rest of the population. According to the German Federal Statistical Office, they are the greatest risk of accidents on German roads.

Even newcomers to the profession often overestimate themselves, as Dunning and co-author Carmen Sanchez found out in a later study. They speak here of a "beginner’s bubble of overconfidence". A little experience is enough – the ego already exceeds the own achievement.

If you watch a casting show on television, you will experience this effect in its purest form. No matter how scathing the criticism, many participants seem to be unaware of why their publicly displayed performance is not met with approval.

Whoever upgrades himself, makes himself strong

But why do we so often overestimate our own achievements and competencies? The social psychologist prof. Dr. Hans-Peter Erb sees this as a completely normal phenomenon: "We all have a positive self-image that we want to maintain."And sometimes even a juicy reward beckons in the process.

"People who easily overestimate themselves are more likely to be successful because they also tackle tasks that they might not have tackled at all if they had been realistic," says Erb. If these tasks possibly lead to success with a little luck or the help of others, one has the feeling of doing everything right. According to the motto: Those who enhance themselves make themselves strong. Even with surface knowledge and good self-dramatization one can be so successful.

Somewhat surprisingly, however, according to Erb, we often overestimate our contributions to negative outcomes as well. That we attribute, for example, a failure primarily to our failure. The reason: We focus primarily on ourselves, observe ourselves much more closely than our fellow human beings – simply because we can look deeper into ourselves than into our counterparts. "In this respect, the effect becomes stronger the more people are involved in a group effort," emphasizes the Hamburg psychologist. The individualism of modern Western society, in which people constantly compare themselves with their fellow human beings, promotes the tendency to overestimate oneself.

Dangerous half-knowledge

You quickly get caught in a vicious cycle of incompetence, Dunning and Kruger conclude. Because half-knowledgeable people tend to overestimate themselves and at the same time fail to recognize the competence of others, they also fail to see the need to educate themselves and thus increase their competence.

So what can you do against your own overconfidence?? The first step is to realize that the much-quoted common sense is often not enough to penetrate complex problems. Self-reflection is what matters: creating awareness of our inherent tendency to overestimate ourselves. That is easier said than done. A prominent example, not only many psychologists agree, sat for years in the White House.

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