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Dunning-Kruger effect

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias that leads incompetent people to overestimate their own intelligence and capability. Despite their shortcomings, people affected may nevertheless rise to positions of power, aided by their self-confidence in their own abilities. Typically, they attribute any success to their perceived innate superiority rather than external factors such as privilege and connections.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is essentially a failure of metacognition, which can be defined as the ability of an individual to objectively think about their own cognitive processes. According to some experts, those affected by the syndrome may essentially lack the mental capacity to understand their own limitations. Unwarranted confidence in their cognitive powers and acumen may lead to significantly flawed decisions, which can have a serious impact when the individual in question is in a position of power and those decisions affect large numbers of people.

Although it can be hard to remediate the Dunning-Kruger effect, there are measures that can reduce the likelihood of its development or its severity. Although the capacity for critical thinking and rational thought vary from one person to another, they can be encouraged through effort and education. 

The Dunning-Kruger effect is related to the self-serving bias, which leads people to view our own actions in a positive light and prefer interpretations of data that serve their purposes, and the Peter principle, which maintains that people rise to their level of incompetence and then tend to stay in that position. 

The effect is named for Justin Kruger and David Dunning who first identified it in their paper, Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.

This was last updated in December 2018

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