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Dunning kruger effect; how knowing about it can help you

Do you know about the Dunning Kruger effect? Although its name sounds like a pair of center-backs of the Borussia Dortmund team, it has nothing to do with soccer. David Dunning and Justin Kruger are two researchers at Cornell University (New York) who became famous in 1999 for scientifically identifying this curious effect by which people are affected.

Today we are going to find out what the Dunning Kruger effect is and how understanding it can help you improve your interactions with your clients as well as with your colleagues, employees or bosses, and even your relationship with other people who are part of your life.

The phenomenon in which the Dunning Kruger effect consists on was demonstrated in a series of experiments whose results were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of December, 1999.

Their research is based on previous studies suggesting that in certain skills, such as driving or reading comprehension, ignorance generated more confidence than knowledge in the subjects performing them.

The researchers hypothesized that, in certain skills:

  • Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own ability.
  • Incompetent individuals are unable to recognize the ability of others.
  • Incompetent individuals are unable to recognize their extreme inability.
  • If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and accept their previous lack of skills.

Based on these premises, the researchers attempted to prove them using students at Cornell University, where they conducted various studies examining the students’ self-assessments in skills such as logical reasoning, grammar, and humor. Subsequently, and after showing them their scores in the tests, they asked them what place they thought they got in the ranking. Curiously enough, it turned out that while the group of the most competent estimated their place in the classification quite correctly, the less competent ones overestimated their position.

Most probably, all of this sounds like something you already knew: the most ignorant individuals tend to consider themselves more intelligent than what they really are, whereas people with more knowledge tend to be more modest about their abilities.

We all know that kind of person who preaches from the rooftops that they know more than anyone about a particular topic (or all the topics!).

Likewise, we also have in mind the idea of ​​the humble wiseman. The well-known aphorism “I only know that I know nothing,” attributed to the Greek philosopher Socrates, is possibly its most popular manifestation.

But, of course, about the Dunning Kruger effect (its authors were even rewarded with an Ig Nobel Prize, which is a kind of parody of the actual Nobel Prize) what is interesting to know is why it happens and why such behavior is so frequent.

On the side of the “incompetent”, it is a self-protection measure of the individual. For many people, recognizing their own ignorance or incompetence would be an unbearable aggression to their self-esteem, so they prefer to place themselves at a higher level of knowledge than where they really are.

On the side of the “competent”, we find the belief that others have an intelligence or knowledge similar to their own, which entails “normalizing” their capacities and attributing them to others, too.

The Dunning Kruger effect is not nonsense or just a worthless notion. Being aware of it can help us to better understand ourselves and to have more empathy towards the people with whom we relate.

In our day to day, we can find multiple situations in which a person (if we speak about our workplace, it can be a client, a colleague, the boss, an employee, etc.) can drive us crazy with their “ignorance.” But we must take this into account:

  • It is possible that said person is suffering from the Dunning Kruger effect. They may not realize that they are wrong and what they say does not make sense because psychologically, they are not able to realize it.
  • Or it may happen that you are the one who is suffering from that effect. That does not mean that you are an ignorant, everybody is more or less skilled in each field, and it is possible that, even if you do not realize it, it is the other person you are dealing with who actually has more knowledge than you do.

In fact we are talking about the difficulty that humans have many times to recognize their weaknesses and understand each other. Fortunately, the Dunning Kruger effect has a solution: with proper training, the person will not only acquire knowledge, but will sometimes realize that he did not have them before.

When it comes to teamwork, we must be aware that the Dunning Kruger effect is a psychological bias in which we can all fall. Therefore, we must be more tolerant of the opinions of others and be aware that we may not always be masters of truth. Sometimes we will not be able to realize our incapacities, and that does not make us worse people. Some other times, it will be the others who will not be realizing that they are not right, but they will not be doing it out of spite, but out of ignorance.

If you run a business, remember that your employees may be right when they warn you that a decision can have negative consequences.

When dealing with a partner, remember that even if you do not believe it, they may have more knowledge than you do in a given area.

If you are talking to a client, remember that they may not be able to understand what you are proposing, and that does not mean that they are stubborn or acting evil.

And so on and so forth, in so many other possible combinations.

Now that you know what the Dunning Kruger effect is, you are a bit more safe from falling into it. Do you want to share your experiences with us? Leave us a comment in the box down below. Thank you!

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