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In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. The cognitive bias of illusory superiority comes from the inability of low-ability people to recognize their lack of ability. Without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their competence or incompetence.
As described by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the cognitive bias of illusory superiority results from an internal illusion in people of low ability and from an external misperception in people of high ability; that is, "the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others."
The psychological phenomenon of illusory superiority was identified as a form of cognitive bias in Kruger and Dunning's 1999 study, "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments". The identification derived from the cognitive bias evident in the criminal case of McArthur Wheeler, who robbed banks while his face was covered with lemon juice, which he believed would make it invisible to the surveillance cameras. This belief was based on his misunderstanding of the chemical properties of lemon juice as an invisible ink.
Other investigations of the phenomenon, such as "Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence" (2003), indicate that much incorrect self-assessment of competence derives from the person's ignorance of a given activity's standards of performance. Dunning and Kruger's research also indicates that training in a task, such as solving a logic puzzle, increases people's ability to accurately evaluate how good they are at it.
In Self-insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself (2005), Dunning described the Dunning–Kruger effect as "the anosognosia of everyday life", referring to a neurological condition in which a disabled person either denies or seems unaware of his or her disability. He stated: "If you're incompetent, you can't know you're incompetent ... The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is."
Dunning and Kruger tested the hypotheses of the cognitive bias of illusory superiority on undergraduate students of introductory courses in psychology by examining the students' self-assessments of their intellectual skills in logical reasoning (inductive, deductive, abductive), English grammar, and personal sense of humor. After learning their self-assessment scores, the students were asked to estimate their ranks in the psychology class. The competent students underestimated their class rank, and the incompetent students overestimated theirs, but the incompetent students did not estimate their class rank as higher than the ranks estimated by the competent group. Across four studies, the research indicated that the study participants who scored in the bottom quartile on tests of their sense of humor, knowledge of grammar, and logical reasoning, overestimated their test performance and their abilities; despite test scores that placed them in the 12th percentile, the participants estimated they ranked in the 62nd percentile.
Moreover, competent students tended to underestimate their own competence, because they erroneously presumed that tasks easy for them to perform, were also easy for other people to perform. Incompetent students improved their ability to estimate their class rank correctly after receiving minimal tutoring in the skills they previously lacked, regardless of any objective improvement gained in said skills of perception. The study Mind-Reading and Metacognition: Narcissism, not Actual Competence, Predicts Self-estimated Ability (2004) extended the cognitive-bias premise of illusory superiority to test the subjects' emotional sensitivity toward other people and their perceptions of other people.
The study How Chronic Self-Views Influence (and Potentially Mislead) Estimates of Performance (2003) indicated a shift in the participants' view of themselves when influenced by external cues. The participants' knowledge of geography was tested; some tests were intended to affect the participant's self-view positively and some were intended to affect it negatively. The participants then were asked to rate their performances; the participants given tests with a positive intent reported better performance than did the participants given tests with a negative intent.
To test Dunning and Kruger's hypotheses, "that people, at all performance levels, are equally poor at estimating their relative performance", the study Skilled or Unskilled, but Still Unaware of It: How Perceptions of Difficulty Drive Miscalibration in Relative Comparisons (2006) investigated three studies that manipulated the "perceived difficulty of the tasks, and, hence, [the] participants' beliefs about their relative standing". The investigation indicated that when the experimental subjects were presented with moderately difficult tasks, there was little variation among the best performers and the worst performers in their ability to predict their performance accurately. With more difficult tasks, the best performers were less accurate in predicting their performance than were the worst performers. Therefore, judges at all levels of skill are subject to similar degrees of error in the performance of tasks.
In testing alternative explanations for the cognitive bias of illusory superiority, the study, Why the Unskilled are Unaware: Further Explorations of (Absent) Self-insight Among the Incompetent (2008), reached the same conclusions as previous studies of the Dunning–Kruger effect: that, in contrast to high performers, "poor performers do not learn from feedback suggesting a need to improve".
Underlying issues of Numeracy
Two unique papers in Numeracy reveal problems with the graphic introduced in the 1999 Kruger and Dunning paper. Subsequent researchers used it, (y − x) versus (x) scatter plots, and related variants for nearly two decades. The authors show how a major part of the body of literature that used these approaches seems to have mistaken and interpreted mathematical artifacts as the products of human behavior. The two papers employed paired, well-aligned instruments of known reliability to examine the evaluation of self-assessment measures from the perspective of signal and noise. They show how the mathematical problems inherent in the Kruger–Dunning type of graph can be overcome by other kinds of graphing that attenuate noise or employ categorical data from known novices and experts. When artifacts are eliminated, the evidence is strong that humans are generally correct in their self-assessments, with only a small percentage of the participants who were studied exhibiting performance that might merit the label "unskilled and unaware of it". The authors' findings refute the claim that humans, in general, are prone to having greatly inflated views of their abilities, but they support two other tenets of the original Kruger and Dunning research: (1) that self-assessment skill can be learned and (2) experts usually self-assess themselves with better accuracy than do novices. The researchers noted that metacognitive self-assessment skill is of great value, and that it can be taught together with any disciplinary content in college courses.
Cultural differences in self-perception
Studies of the Dunning–Kruger effect usually have been of North Americans, but studies of Japanese people suggest that cultural forces have a role in the occurrence of the effect. The study Divergent Consequences of Success and Failure in Japan and North America: An Investigation of Self-improving Motivations and Malleable Selves (2001) indicated that Japanese people tended to underestimate their abilities, and tended to see underachievement (failure) as an opportunity to improve their abilities at a given task, thereby increasing their value to the social group.
"The Dunning-Kruger Song" is part of The Incompetence Opera, a mini-opera that premiered at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony in 2017. The mini-opera is billed as "a musical encounter with the Peter principle and the Dunning-Kruger Effect".
Although the Dunning–Kruger effect was formulated in 1999, the cognitive bias of illusory superiority has been known throughout history and identified by intellectuals. A sampling of their comments includes:
- Confucius (551–479 BC), who said, "Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance"
- The philosopher Socrates (470–399 BC), who interpreted a prophecy from the Delphic oracle that he was wise despite feeling that he did not fully understand anything, as the wisdom of being aware that he knew nothing
- Playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616), who said, "The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool" (As You Like It, V. i.)
- The poet Alexander Pope (1688–1744), who wrote in An Essay on Criticism, 1709: "A little learning is a dangerous thing"
- Henry Fielding (1707–1754), who, in the novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, wrote: "For men of true learning, and almost universal knowledge, always compassionate [pity] the ignorance of others; but fellows who excel in some little, low, contemptible art, are always certain to despise those who are unacquainted with that art."
- The naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882), who said, "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge"
- Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), who wrote in Human, All Too Human (aphorism 483), "The Enemies of Truth. — Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies."
- W. B. Yeats (1865–1939), who, in the poem The Second Coming, said: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."
- the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), who said, "One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision."
- Big-fish–little-pond effect
- Curse of knowledge
- Four stages of competence – Learning model relating the psychological states in progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill
- Grandiose delusions
- Hanlon's razor – Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity
- Impostor syndrome
- Narcissistic personality disorder
- Not even wrong – An argument or explanation that is based on invalid reasoning or speculative premises that can neither be proven correct nor falsified
- Optimism bias
- Overconfidence effect
- Peter principle
- Self-serving bias
- Superiority complex
- Law of triviality
- Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (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. American Psychological Association. 77 (6): 1121–1134. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.64.2655. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2061. PMID 10626367.
- "Why losers have delusions of grandeur". New York Post. 23 May 2010. Retrieved 19 March 2014.
- Dunning, David; Johnson, Kerri; Ehrlinger, Joyce; Kruger, Justin (1 June 2003). "Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence". Current Directions in Psychological Science. 12 (3): 83–87. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.01235.
- Lee, Chris (5 November 2016). "Revisiting why incompetents think they're awesome". Ars Technica. p. 3. Retrieved 11 January 2014.
- Morris, Errol (20 June 2010). "The Anosognosic's Dilemma: Something's Wrong but You'll Never Know What It Is (Part 1)". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 March 2011.
- Dunning, David (2005). Self-insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself. New York: Psychology Press. pp. 14–15. ISBN 1841690740. OCLC 56066405.
- Yarkoni, Tal (7 July 2010). "What the Dunning-Kruger effect Is and Isn't". Retrieved 28 July 2017.
- Ames, Daniel R.; Kammrath, Lara K. (September 2004). "Mind-Reading and Metacognition: Narcissism, not Actual Competence, Predicts Self-Estimated Ability" (PDF). Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. 28 (3): 187–209. doi:10.1023/b:jonb.0000039649.20015.0e. ISSN 0191-5886.
- Ehrlinger, Joyce; Dunning, David (January 2003). "How chronic self-views influence (and potentially mislead) estimates of performance". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. American Psychological Association. 84 (1): 5–17. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.11. PMID 12518967.
- Burson, Katherine A.; Larrick, Richard P.; Klayman, Joshua (2006). "Skilled or unskilled, but still unaware of it: How perceptions of difficulty drive miscalibration in relative comparisons". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. American Psychological Association. 90 (1): 60–77. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.168. hdl:2027.42/39168. PMID 16448310.
- Ehrlinger, Joyce; Johnson, Kerri; Banner, Matthew; Dunning, David; Kruger, Justin (2008). "Why the unskilled are unaware: Further explorations of (absent) self-insight among the incompetent". Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 105 (1): 98–121. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2007.05.002. PMC 2702783. PMID 19568317.
- Nuhfer, Edward; (retired), California State University; Cogan, Christopher; Fleischer, Steven; Gaze, Eric; Wirth, Karl; Consultant, Independent; Islands, California State University - Channel; College, Bowdoin (2016). "Random Number Simulations Reveal How Random Noise Affects the Measurements and Graphical Portrayals of Self-Assessed Competency". Numeracy. 9 (1). doi:10.5038/1936-4622.214.171.124. ISSN 1936-4660.
- Nuhfer, Edward; (retired), California State University; Fleischer, Steven; Cogan, Christopher; Wirth, Karl; Gaze, Eric; Islands, California State University - Channel; College, Ventura; College, Macalester (2017). "How Random Noise and a Graphical Convention Subverted Behavioral Scientists' Explanations of Self-Assessment Data: Numeracy Underlies Better Alternatives". Numeracy. 10 (1). doi:10.5038/1936-46126.96.36.199. ISSN 1936-4660.
- DeAngelis, Tori (February 2003). "Why We overestimate Our Competence". Monitor on Psychology. American Psychological Association. 34 (2): 60. ISSN 1529-4978. Retrieved 7 March 2011.
- Heine, S. J.; Lehman, D. R.; Ide, E.; Leung, C.; Kitayama, S.; Takata, T.; Matsumoto, H. (October 2001). "Divergent Consequences of Success and Failure in Japan and North America: An Investigation of Self-improving Motivations and Malleable Selves". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. American Psychological Association. 81 (4): 599–615. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.529. ISSN 0022-3514. PMID 11642348.
- "Ig Nobel Past Winners". Improbable Research. Retrieved 7 March 2011.
- "The Dunning-Kruger Song", from The Incompetence Opera. YouTube.com. ImprobableResearch. 15 Jan 2018. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
- The Incompetence Opera. YouTube.com. ImprobableResearch. 29 Dec 2017. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
- "The 27th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony & Lectures". Retrieved 2018-01-18.
- "Preview: "The Incompetence Opera"". Improbable Research. Retrieved 18 January 2018.
- Fuller, Geraint (2011). "Ignorant of ignorance?". Practical Neurology. 11 (6): 365–365. doi:10.1136/practneurol-2011-000117. ISSN 1474-7758. PMID 22100949.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich (1910). Human, All Too Human (PDF). Translated by Zimmern, Helen. Edinburgh: T. N. FOULIS. p. 355. ISBN 978-1591026785.