The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to recognize their mistakes. The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their own abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority.
In other words, people who are incompetent often don't realize that they are, and think that they know more than they do. This can happen because they don't have enough knowledge or experience to recognize their own limitations. It can be very dangerous because they may make poor decisions or take actions that could result in negative consequences due to their overconfidence. On the other hand, people who are competent in a specific area may not realize the full extent of their abilities because they are so familiar with the topic that they assume that others must be just as skilled as they are themselves.
True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing. — Socrates
A guitar teacher of mine in college once—rightly—informed me: “You don’t even know enough to realize just how little you know.” Little did my teacher know that this comment would stick with me for a long time. The irony, of course, is that although years and years have passed since my conversation with him, his note still applies.
Whether the craft be music or web development, I’m not even close to an expert.
Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. As Kruger and Dunning conclude, "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."
Dunning-Kruger Effect Examples
To summarize, here are a few examples to illustrate the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Let's have a look at a couple of examples about overestimating one's abilities due to a lack of knowledge and experience.
- Someone who has never played tennis before might believe that they could beat a professional tennis player without much effort.
- Someone who has only taken one or two photography classes might believe that they can take better pictures than someone who has years of experience in the field of photography.
On the other hand, here are a few examples of underestimating one's own abilities due to the assumption that others have the same level of knowledge and expertise.
- Someone who has been working as a doctor for many years might believe that everyone should be able to understand complex medical terms.
- Someone who has spent years studying and working in the field of web development might assume that everyone else in their profession is as knowledgeable and skilled as they are, even if that's not the case.
Overall, the Dunning-Kruger effect is often seen when people lack the self-awareness to recognize their own limitations or when they assume that others share their own level of expertise. This can lead to overconfidence, poor decision-making, and mistakes that can have negative consequences.
How to Detect a Self-Proclaimed Expert
Detecting a self-proclaimed expert can be challenging, but there are a few signs to look out for. According to Wikipedia, for a given skill, self-proclaimed experts will:
- tend to overestimate their own level of skill
- fail to recognize genuine skill in others
- fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy
- recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they can be trained to substantially improve.
- claim expertise without providing evidence
- tend to lack credibility or relevant experience
- tend to have limited education or work experience in the field, or they may have a history of making false or misleading claims
The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge. — Stephen Hawking
Everything’s relative, of course, but I’ve found that those who genuinely know their stuff are considerably modest, when compared to those who have a fraction of their experience and knowledge. Perhaps this is simple human nature. Blissful ignorance and dreams are many times preferable to actual work. It’s easier to brag about your next million-dollar web application than to actually create it. It’s more impressive to use the terms “gig” and “contract” when you really mean “freebie website for my sister.”
In fact, it's really important to be cautious when evaluating someone's claims of self-expertise. Try to look for evidence to support their claims, and don't be afraid of asking questions or requesting more information before accepting their claims.
Is It Ever Okay to Call Yourself an Expert?
Is it in poor taste to designate yourself as an expert? Ultimately, it’s just a word; do what you wish. I'm admittedly being a bit pedantic here. There are occasions when it might be appropriate to refer to yourself as an expert, but it's important to do so with humility and with supporting evidence, and of course, without being arrogant.
Christian Heilmann argues:
"Sometimes, you need to call yourself an expert to reach people who are badly in need of information."
That’s certainly a valid case, and it's particularly applicable when considering events like conferences and workshops. When you host a workshop, regardless of whether you label yourself as an expert, you assume that role. When it comes to spreading education, Christian is right: sometimes you must use these terms to attract those in need. And in these teacher-student relationships, you are the expert. No harm done.
We also must consider simple marketing or SEO. To John Doe, who needs a website for his new business, it’s important to remind him that we are the “experts.” As more and more tools, which allow regular folks to create websites, are released, they should be made aware that others have dedicated their lives to learning this craft. Don’t risk the livelihood of your business, all for the sake of saving X dollars on the website. You are the expert. John Doe must know this.
However, among your peers, you might think twice before labeling yourself in this way.
Arrogance is not inspiring.
This is not to say that you shouldn't be confident in your worth and abilities. Never devalue your worth to an employer or client. That said, though, unless you are one of the few truly exceptional veterans in our industry, stop patting yourself on the head, and get back to doing what we all must do in our free time: learning.
It's also important to note that expertise is often relative. While you may be an expert in one particular area, there may be other areas where you lack knowledge or experience. It's important to remain open to learning and to avoid overestimating your abilities in areas that are not your cup of tea. It's best to let others describe you as an expert based on their own assessment of your knowledge and skills, rather than trying to claim the title for yourself, don't you think?
Whether you're an industry veteran or a college student, we all share one commonality: we spend as much free time as possible desperately trying to remain relevant in this ever-expanding industry.
Ultimately, what matters most is not how you describe yourself, but how you actually conduct yourself and the quality of your work that may inspire others.
How to Overcome the Dunning-Kruger Effect
Overcoming the Dunning-Kruger effect requires a combination of self-awareness, a willingness to learn, and feedback from others.
There are a couple of strategies that you could employ to overcome this.
Seek feedback from others and appreciate constructive criticism. It really helps you to identify the areas in which you may be overestimating your abilities and gives you opportunities for growth and development.
You need to understand that learning is a continuous process, so you should never stop learning new things. It's important to remain curious and continue to learn, even in areas where you may already have some expertise. Always being open to learning new things allows you to be more modest, and you can avoid being overconfident at the same time.
It's important to be aware of your own limitations and to recognize when you may be overestimating your abilities. This can help you avoid making mistakes or poor decisions based on false assumptions.
You can also find a mentor or coach who can provide guidance and support as you develop your skills and expertise. Try to find someone who has more experience or knowledge in your field and is willing to share their insights and advice. It will help you avoid being overconfident or under-confident about your skills.
In a nutshell, overcoming the Dunning-Kruger effect requires a willingness to be self-aware, to seek feedback, and to remain open to learning and growth.
I think it's safe to assume that, like me, you're considerably aware of the skills you don't yet have. Hopefully, Envato Tuts+ can help with that! Until next time, I'll leave you with this quote:
"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." — Bertrand Russell
This post has been updated with contributions from Sajal Soni.