Reveal your Dunning-Kruger effect for growth: Are you overconfident?

Have you ever met someone who confidently discussed a topic, only to reveal their limited understanding later? This phenomenon, known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, is more common than you think. But what if this cognitive bias is affecting you? Let’s explore how to use it as a tool for intellectual growth.

Social psychologists and researchers Justin Kruger and David Dunning published an article in 1999 investigating a phenomenon we’ve all experienced: the positive relationship between overconfidence and incompetence.

Recall when that topically incompetent someone talked about that topic with such confidence that you mistook them for having some degree in the field. Eventually, you realized their significant gaps and limitations and that their demonstration of knowledge relied on overconfidence.

You’d have a laugh or two, point a finger, and gloat momentarily. “Dunning-Kruger much?”

But then what? How did you improve by pointing out that sad demonstration of exaggerated confidence? You didn’t. You could feel good about yourself while maintaining the same level of knowledge yourself. And that’s the degree to which most people use the knowledge derived from the seminal work of Kruger and Dunning, like a gotcha moment.

Let me present a counter proposition: Why not use the Dunning-Kruger study to ask yourself how you know if you “suffer” from the Dunning-Kruger effect? And if you’re affected by it, what steps can you take to enhance your competence or, at the very least, your competence self-assessment?

What’s the Dunning-Kruger effect?

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes the outcomes from a 1999 study by the social psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning. Their research demonstrated how skill-incompetent participants tended to overestimate their abilities or skills. (As a side note, I highly recommend anyone read this well-written and entertaining article.)

The two colleagues investigated the relation between the study subjects’ competence and their self-assessment based on four studies where they had the participants complete tests in domains “in which knowledge, wisdom, or savvy was crucial.” The domains comprised humor, logical reasoning (in two of the four studies), and English grammar. After completing the tests, the investigators asked participants to assess their performance.  

Across the four studies, they found that participants in the bottom quartile (the group comprising the lowest 25% of performers) overestimated their knowledge or skills to a higher degree than the other quartiles. They thought they were above average. Moreover, two of the four studies revealed that participants in the bottom quartile overestimated their ability due to a lack of metacognition, understanding one’s own thought processes. In other words, incompetence in a particular skill can cause you to overestimate your abilities due to your lack of metacognition in the same context.

Schematic graph of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
A schematic representation of one of the outcomes from Kruger and Dunning’s study. Most people overestimate their abilities – especially the ones in the first quartile.

Paradoxically, they also revealed that training participants in a specific skill increased their competence and improved their understanding of their incompetence. As the authors highlighted, the paradox lies in that “once they gained the metacognitive skills to recognize their own incompetence, they were no longer incompetent.”

The way many use the knowledge about the Dunning-Kruger effect

Since the late 2000s, the Internet saw a blossoming attention to the psychological phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Primarily, social media users started circulating memes and comments, often to describe people’s confidence in specific topics despite lacking expertise.

And although we’ve shared many fun moments in the name of a good smirk, it might be time to repurpose the talk around the Dunning-Kruger effect. Let this article be the fun-breaking cue.

Finger-pointing most often polarizes a discussion and creates ideological barriers. It shuts down discourse, communication, and collaboration by intimidating people from expressing their opinions. As we’ve seen, similar confrontational tactics often impair your desires to teach, convince, and improve.

So, instead of finger-pointing, why not use the knowledge from Kruger and Dunning’s study to improve your metacognition? Leverage that self-awareness to enhance your personal growth further.

Are you affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect?

Pinpointing the Dunning-Kruger effect is nuanced and requires controlled assessments. Nonetheless, you can employ specific tactics to gauge if and how the effect affects you.

The four stages of competence

Let’s first look at a model called the four stages of competence (or the learning stages), initially introduced in the 1960s and later developed by Noel Burch from Gordon Training International. According to this model, learners of new skills go through four stages, often represented in a triangle or four boxes (I prefer the box representation):

Four stages of competence to help you measure if you are affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The model suggests that individuals progress through stages ranging from unconscious incompetence (not recognizing a lack of skill) to unconscious competence (performing the skill without conscious effort).

In stage 1, you’re unconsciously incompetent (or unskilled). You’re unaware of your knowledge of the specific skill; your metacognition is absent or low. At this stage, you have little or no understanding of the particular skill and may even reject its value.

Once you reach stage 2, you’re consciously incompetent. You still lack sufficient understanding or knowledge in the specific skill but realize your incompetence and the skill’s values. In other words, your metacognition has increased, and you know what (or that) you don’t know.  

You reach stage 3, where you’re consciously competent and understand the skill-specific details. However, the trajectory between stages 2 and 3 is reversible, and stage 3 requires focus and concentration, which, if broken, shuttles you back to stage 2.

Finally, at stage 4, you’re unconsciously competent. Continuous practice of the skill has rendered you the ability to perform a skill relatively effortlessly; it has become second nature. At this stage, you can perform the skill-specific tasks in parallel with another task – provided you’re competent in the other task.

The four stages of competence model can help us understand our skill proficiency and its relation to the Dunning-Kruger effect. However, genuinely assessing your Dunning-Kruger state (a concept I just made up) requires more than relying solely on your self-perceived skill level and subjective feelings toward the skill.

Effectively assessing the Dunning-Kruger state demands a comprehensive understanding of the Dunning-Kruger effect and the four stages of competence, encompassing metacognitive skills, feedback, and experience. These models, in turn, strengthen self-perception and guard against overconfidence. How aware are you of your current skill-specific experience, and how do you relate to others? Are you overly confident about your abilities without having the necessary expertise? Are you confident about things that most experts would find complex or challenging?

Peer evaluations and test results

Getting external feedback scares the crap out of most people. We often restrain ourselves from getting critiqued by others, especially if adverse outcomes are at stake. (You can read more about the scientific mindset here and the value of embracing critique here.) However, external feedback might better reflect your competence since we tend to deceive ourselves as we strive to maintain cognitive ease.

Ask friends and colleagues to evaluate you, for example, in association with a particular skill. Request them to write down your strengths and weaknesses and – here’s the kicker – ensure they emphasize the weaknesses. In other words, although the positives are flattering, they won’t improve you as much.

As a researcher, I gave my colleagues a so-called 360-degree feedback form. True to my word, I asked them to “sure, give me positive critique but emphasize my improvement points.” Of course, since most live by the saying, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” I received back only a fraction of the forms I’d handed out. But they helped me pinpoint my weaknesses, and I became a better researcher and person because of that – or at least I convinced myself that’s the case.

Finally, nowadays, you find tests for anything. If you genuinely want to know your competence at any skill, find a reliable test that assesses your skills, whether online or in real life. Better yet, if you have time (and money, if applicable), enroll in a course. If it’s as easy as you think, you’ll have a high grade without any effort.

Having said all this, if you go through all these steps (the four stages, feedback, and tests), chances are you possess self-awareness, meaning you don’t “suffer” from the Dunning-Kruger effect. (I also doubt that whoever is overconfident and incompetent actually “suffers” from the effect.)

So you’re an overconfident incompetent; what now?

Let’s say this article inspired you, and you found out you were part of the lowest quartiles in a particular skill. What can you do to improve it? Well, first off, the fact that you’re aware of your incompetence indicates you don’t “suffer” from the Dunning-Kruger effect – it’s a Catch-22, really. But to simplify things, let’s ignore the contradictions and assume you just realized you fall into the overconfident incompetent category. You’re in luck because this is where the fun starts. You’ve analyzed your competence, and it’s time to improve your skills progressively. Start with the basics and slowly progress from there. How to do that is another topic. For now, enjoy the basics!   

The featured image is a modified version of Mohamed Hassan‘s Cat Mirror from Pixabay.

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