Mistrusting confidence and uncomfortable education: implications of the Dunning Kruger effect

One of my guilty pleasures is watching the tv show The Apprentice. It is well-made, dramatic television and there are sometimes lessons there about business, project management and teamwork. I have used it in class sometimes. However, part of the uncomfortable appeal of the show lies in the fact that the contestants seem to think that arrogant assertions of their incredible abilities is necessary to succeed. They will claim to be the very best in their field, to be destined for greatness, or effortlessly able to dominate others and so on – veteran Apprentice-watchers will know what I mean.

The show itself quickly demonstrates that their actual abilities range from reasonably talented to completely disastrous, and they are lampooned mercilessly and hilariously on the sister show You’re Fired. Some of the contestants learn from this and we see them develop as managers and people, but others are utterly impervious and will leave the competition protesting that their genius has gone unrecognised (one suspects not for the first time). They would all benefit from a refresher on the work of Jim Collins, who identified one of the critical characteristics of successful business leaders as humility. Humility does not make good television, I suppose, and is not much on display anywhere in The Apprentice.

What we are seeing here is a fairly common phenomenon – we all know people who have incredible confidence in views that are not based on any sort of evidence, whether they are views about themselves, others or life in general. What is more, they will be impervious to any challenges to their views, because they know that they are right. The phenomenon has been observed by thoughtful people in many eras. Charles Darwin, for example, in the Descent of Man stated:

“…ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

This has also been observed via comedy – Malvolio, Basil Fawlty, David Brent and many others were created to satirise those who have absolute self-confidence and lack any awareness whatsoever of their many weaknesses. I can remember well being caught out in this way. I went to my first supervision at university with an essay I thought was passionate, well-argued, a real masterpiece. My supervisor, who was a genuine expert, very politely and gently demonstrated to me that my essay was in fact a load of half-baked assertions and meaningless drivel. It was not based on any understanding or application of the material I was supposed to be analysing and did not marshal any real evidence to support my argument. It was not a pleasant experience and was frequently repeated, though it became less of a shock over time to have my essays ripped apart. However, from these experiences I hope I learned incredibly valuable lessons – how to find, analyse and use evidence and how to debate rationally. But first I needed to be jolted from the idea that I was already competent.

I only recently found out, though (and that is my failure), that this phenomenon has been well studied and has a name – the Dunning Kruger effect. In 1999 two psychologists at Cornell University, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, published a paper called “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” Based on their own research with undergraduates and a review of literature, they demonstrated that people who lack skills will usually:

  • Systematically over-estimate their skill level,
  • Fail to recognise their incompetence and
  • Fail to recognise skills in others.

It is a well-known paper and concept, but deserves to be better known still as it is extremely important. They noted that:

“…the skills that engender competence in a particular domain are often the very same skills necessary to evaluate competence in that domain—one’s own or anyone else’s.”

And, developing this thought:

“We propose that those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.”

While conversely, highly competent individuals actually have a tendency to under-rate their abilities relative to their peers.

The point has been raised that these studies were carried out on Americans, and may not apply across cultures, but the principle seems to hold good in the UK – look no further than The Apprentice for that. I think this has all kinds of implications, and would like to highlight a few that come to mind.

Firstly, in the field of business and management, this finding warns us that incompetent managers will not recognise competence when they see it. They will not reward, develop, nurture or hire competent people, unless by accident. They will also not have the faintest idea that they are incompetent, and their organisation may soon find itself in a death spiral. That is why a focus on developing managers is so critical.

Secondly, mistrust someone who appears highly confident. Clearly, some level of confidence is needed in many situations. If a suitably qualified and experienced surgeon still has doubts about their ability to perform an operation, we would probably rather not know about them. But do not believe unsupported assertions, no matter how confidently they are made. In fact, the more confidently they are made, the more we should consider the possibility they are wrong. Check for evidence. Anyone who is experienced and trained at how to interview for jobs knows how to do this.

Thirdly, there is an important way out of this bind. As Dunning and Kruger put it:

“…one way to make people recognize their incompetence is to make them competent.”

This process of exposing incompetence and developing competence, which go so closely together, is sometimes known as education. To learn anything we must first admit our incompetence, so education is often an uncomfortable process and we should never pretend otherwise. But the results will often be priceless.


Kruger, J. & Dunning, D. (1999) “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 77, No. 6, pp. 1121-1134.


Filed under Personal views

2 responses to “Mistrusting confidence and uncomfortable education: implications of the Dunning Kruger effect

  1. Pingback: Confusion vs Clarity – Great teachers who beat themselves up and poor ones who think they are great | Neil Atkin

  2. Pingback: Confusion vs Clarity – Great teachers who beat themselves up and poor ones who think they are great | dragonfly training

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