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Dunning and Kruger: You’re Not As Smart as You Think

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When walking through the stacks of a bookstore or a library you’ve probably thought “there’s too much to know.” So why do people think they are smarter than they actually are?

That’s the discovery of a landmark study which is now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, named for the two Cornell scientists who discovered it. For our ongoing series on cognitive biases in the workplace, we’re covering a phenomenon which causes tons of us to overestimate our own intelligence.

Here’s how it works: people who don’t really know what they are talking about tend to think they are experts.

Expert on Stage

© Flickr user ImagineCup

Why would this be the case? Dunning and Kruger (and a whole lot of other researchers) explain that when you’re ignorant of the all but the surface details for a particular topic, you likely have zero knowledge of the size and scope of what’s hiding below the surface. Or to put it in a handy repetitive phrase: “If you don’t know much, you also don’t know what you don’t know.”

The D-K Effect at Work

Writing for Arkansas Business magazine, Gwen Mortiz notes the career implications of the phenomenon:

[The effect reminds me] of a truism that was pointed out by a supervisor early in my career: The best employees will invariably be the hardest on themselves in self-evaluations, while the lowest performers can be counted on to think they are doing excellent work

That’s an offshoot of what the authors write in the original paper:

What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.

And it doesn’t just apply to self-confidence, but also to people’s perception of others. As the PsyBlog reports:

It turns out that people with real talent tend to underestimate just how good they are.

The root of this bias is that clever people tend to assume other people find things as easy as they do, when actually this is their talent shining through.

How do we fight the Dunning-Kruger effect at work and for ourselves? Here are some suggestions:

  • Always be learning, and promote learning – The more you think you’re “done” with a particular topic, the more your overconfidence puts you at risk. Tell people that you continue to study, and encourage them to do the same.
  • Seek mentors and experts – One key finding is that experts tend to know other experts, and will redirect questions to them. Model this behavior by developing an advisory panel.
  • Be wary of impulsive decisions – This is especially true if you are choosing something in an area of your life or career that is new to you.
  • Consider how you could be wrong – In any scenario where you feel confident, think about possible circumstances in which you’d be making a mistake. What are you missing or leaving out?

Don’t let what you don’t know hurt you! Figure out what you don’t know. Or, at least assume there’s more to learn.

Bonus: Reverse Dunning-Kruger Effect

You may have already realized that this psychological bias also works backwards. Genuine experts tend to dismiss their expertise. Why would this be? Shouldn’t people who know what they are talking about, well, know that they know what they are talking about?

As I noted before, people tend to think everyone else is pretty much like them. Those who are really smart in one field think everyone is equally smart. Likewise, smart people know about exceptions and unusual cases in which their knowledge is fuzzy. And smart, well-connected people can always send you to the next office to talk to someone else who is even smarter.

Bonus Bonus: What about Illusory Superiority?

Earlier in this series, I covered the concept of illusory superiority. What’s the difference between this and Dunning-Kruger?

  • Illusory superiority: Thinking you can do something you can’t actually do.
  • Dunning-Kruger Effect: Tendency to overestimate your knowledge and competence because you can’t see what you don’t know.

So: one is about reaching too far and the other is about thinking you’re too smart. In either case: be aware.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
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