Dunning-Kruger Effect, some notes from Dunning’s AMA

4 minute read

Recently, Dr. David Dunning did an AMA on reddit on the subject of the effect named after him: Dunning Kruger.

Some highlights:

We view the DKE is “pre” cognitive dissonance. It’s not that people are denying their incompetence, they literally cannot see it in the first place, and so there’s nothing to deny or experience dissonance over. It is a cognitive failing, one of awareness, not a motivated (or dissonance) phenomenon. That said, not denying denial, either.


We have found two characteristics of people more likely to have arguably false beliefs and more overconfidence. They have two cognitive habits:

  • They jump to conclusions.
  • They reject advice or refuse to reconsider their initial opinions.


We do know from other people’s work (and one publication in our lab: Balcetis, Dunning, & Miller, 2008) that there are cross-cultural differences in how much people over-rate themselves relative to reality. In North America and Europe, it’s rather pervasive. […] But in other areas of the world, such as Japan and the Far East, one does not find this overrating — and it is quite an active area of research why and when this might be. How it relates to the DKE has not been studied at all. My speculation is that negative feedback when you perform poorly is more prevalent and honest in these other cultures, and that’s a hypothesis I would like to test. In the States, poor performance just means you are a little less awesome than you normally are.


People who jump to conclusions are the most prone to overconfident error.


The expertise and skill needed to produce a good answer are exactly the same skills needed to judge a correct answer. Thus, if you are deficit in coming up with a good argument or answer, you are also deficient in judging whether your argument/answer or anyone else’s is any good. You certainly won’t be able to understand the logic of the other side of an argument.


Beginning pilots are appropriately scared of the task. But, after a little training, they become more experienced and dangerous because they haven’t confronted all the problems they might yet. So, how do you expose trainee pilots to DKE without putting their lives in danger?


Just seeing how other people deal with situations that are similar to the ones we face in life is often instructive. The key is, don’t think this is an issue one can solve alone; it does take a village to achieve self-understanding.


Our thinking is that this lack of insight into ignorance and incompetence is domain-specific. That is, each of us has pockets of incompetence we do not know about. It’s not that there are some people who in general don’t realize their deficits (e.g., because they are less intelligent, for example). Rather, the DKE is an issue that hits everyone within their specific pockets of deficit.


Men and women will tend toward overconfidence in tasks stereotypically associated with their gender, and underconfidence in tasks associated with the other gender.


People can believe they are moral, good leaders, intelligent, sophisticated, disciplined, etc., because they each have a different definition of each term in their head, one that just happens to emphasize what they do.
So, within their personal bubble of a definition, yes, they all can be superior, but not once you collate everyone’s definition. And that’s when the mischief begins (e.g., why two people argue they themselves deserve that promotion).


The DKE isn’t about them, it is about us. We are the ones suffering from it, and should perhaps be the object of our doubt.


He gives a simple advice to try to balance the effect:

  1. Consider the opposite: Spend some time thinking how you might be wrong or how things might turn out other than what you think.
  2. Ask others for their opinion.


From the Dunning-Kruger is also easy to talk about what confidence is and how to differentiate good confidence from the effect itself. The explanation Dr. David gives is about the timing:

I am often asked if being confident is fundamentally good or bad. I say it has to be both, in its proper place. A general on the day of battle needs to be confident so that his or her troops execute the battle plan with efficiency. Doing so saves lives. However, before that day, I want a cautious general who over-plans—one who wants more troops, more ordnance, better contingency plans—so that he or she is best prepared for the day of battle.

Also, it’s interesting how high-performer can underestimate themselves. Given the fact that I don’t think I’m a high-performer (for me what I do is just normal) but asking around people think of that about me, then I guess I fit perfectly this bias:

And, part of the original DKE framework in our 1999 paper suggested that high performers underestimate themselves, but in a particular way. In an objective sense, they get just how well they are doing. But, they assume that other people are also doing well, too. Thus, high performers think they are nothing special relative to everyone else. (And this can aid “imposter” feelings that high performers sometimes express and that have been noted in the comments here.) Thus, high performers underestimate just how distinctive and special their performance and contributions are.


This was a great way to learn more about the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Thanks Dr. Dunning.