The Dunning–Kruger Effect and How to Avoid it for Better Decision Making

We all come across people who claim to be an expert at something that they are not. It can be hard to deal with people who have an illusion of being smarter than they are. There is actually a logical explanation for this behavior called the Dunning–Kruger effect. But before you look at others suffering from this phenomenon, you should also evaluate yourself and see if you suffer from a perceptual distortion affecting your relationship with others, career, business decisions and having a strain on your personal life.

What is the Dunning–Kruger Effect?

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias, which in psychology is attributed as a ‘subjective reality’ or a ‘perceptual distortion’. People suffering from the Dunning–Kruger effect overestimate their limited knowledge, intellect or competence. Such individuals also lack the ability to recognize their own incompetence because they even lack the bare minimum knowledge required to judge their own competence related to the domain they claim to have a command over.

dunning kruger effect

History of the Dunning-Kruger Effect

In 1995 a man named McArthur Wheeler robbed two banks in Pittsburgh in broad daylight. He even smiled at the camera. However, shortly after being caught Wheeler was surprised and mumbled that he had worn ‘the juice’. This was a reference to the lemon juice he had rubbed on his face thinking he was invisible to cameras. This was due to his misunderstanding regarding lemon juice which is also used as invisible ink. The police concluded that Wheeler was not crazy or hooked on drugs, but he was simply mistaken about the use of lemon juice.

Wheeler’s actions led to two researchers investigating the phenomenon, which was later identified after their names, David Alan Dunning and Justin Kruger. The Dunning-Kruger effect was hence identified as a form of an illusory superiority in the 1999 study by Dunning and Kruger title, ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments’.

How the Dunning-Kruger Effect Affects People and How to Avoid it?

You might have seen people arguing about a topic on Twitter, only to be schooled by someone more competent than them. In fact, many actors, politicians and sportsmen end up making a fool out of themselves by tweeting something that turns out to be complete nonsense. This is not to say that these individuals are not extremely talented in their own line of work, however, venturing into territory that they don’t understand does not make them look any smarter. Moreover, the Dunning–Kruger effect frequently occurs at the workplace, allowing incompetent people to make a mess out of projects, mismanaging important tasks and leading to financial losses for companies.

A person competent at one thing might suffer from the Dunning–Kruger effect when venturing into another domain, thinking he/she knows it all! Similarly, someone might simply be incompetent at the one thing they are supposed to be good at; their job! The Dunning–Kruger effect affects people’s lives on a daily basis and a little bit of care and consideration can help people avoid embarrassment and make their lives better. Let’s discuss how you can avoid the Dunning–Kruger effect.

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Avoiding Poor Performance at the Workplace

Many people suffering from the Dunning–Kruger effect can suffer from poor performance at the workplace. This is because they can end up believing that they have complete command on the job designated to them, only to end up making a mess out of everything. The Dunning–Kruger effect at the workplace can simply be avoided by looking closely at fine details, being open to suggestion and seeking help, as well as by making sure you avoid the perception that you know it all. After all, ‘true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing’.

Not Antagonizing Coworkers

You might have come across a coworker who claims to know more than he does and actually believes it! What if that coworker was you? We can end up antagonizing our coworkers by our rigid attitude and personal biases. Not listening to suggestions, thinking of others as fools and making wrong decisions after consistent bad outcomes can be avoided by simply stopping for a minute and reconsidering facts and knowledge. This will help you be humble and not insult your coworkers out of your own arrogance and misunderstanding of facts.

Making Better Business and Workplace Decisions

Many business and workplace decisions are taken by rigid bosses who consider it insulting to allow their subordinates to advise them. Many times, it is the subordinate who is more in touch with facts and market demands, since he/she is constantly dealing with customers. Listening to competent subordinates can actually be quite helpful. There is no harm in seeking help and advice from a mentor or someone who has more experience in the industry. You can have a group of friends or acquaintances that you can discuss things such as project proposals, market perceptions, financial forecasts and other types of important bits of advice to analyze if you’re going in the right direction.

Improving Confidence and Public Dealing

Whether you are looking to improve your public speaking skills or wish to improve your dealing with other people in your industry, overcoming the Dunning–Kruger effect through objective thinking can be quite helpful. If you’re open to new ideas and accepting your mistake, you can easily improve your arguments and know when not to argue. Whether you want to present your point of view with commitment during a PowerPoint presentation or wish to be better in dealing with clients, vendors, colleagues and bosses, you can see a marked improvement by checking your facts, avoiding ignorance on important topics and being patient in understanding other people.

Overcoming Hurdles and Climbing the Career Ladder

Many people are quickly promoted on past performance, only to find out that they are not suited for the promotion. A salesperson might be great at selling a product and might be made a manager after a year of success. Only to find out that he/she was not very good at managing a sales team. This is called the Peter Principle. Once someone suffers from the Peter Principle, the Dunning–Kruger effect is not far away. One can have an inflated view of one’s competence in the wake of authority and charming complements by subordinates looking to get on the good side of the boss. Even if you end up suffering from the Peter Principle, you can critically analyze your situation and try to improve your skills to better manage the new job. Whether you require seeking advice, opting for a training or require a more competent subordinate to do some of the heavy lifting, you can avoid the Dunning–Kruger effect by understanding what you know and what you do not.

Preventing Miscalculated Decisions in Personal Life

The Dunning–Kruger effect can affect you even at a very personal level. You might have seen many couples fighting over something going wrong because of bad decision making. You might have even made such a mistake yourself. If you’re not good at fixing a leaked pipe, don’t try to do it yourself thinking you are great at it since you might end up making the leak worse. Similarly, if you’re not great at managing finances, why not let your significant other take charge of household financial decisions? Many people end up overestimating their competence, leading to a financial, social or emotional crisis in their personal life.

avoiding the dunning kruger effect and making better decisions


The Dunning–Kruger effect gives us a distorted perception of our own abilities. In the wake of information overload, many people have become susceptible to believing that they know about a subject simply by going through a Wikipedia page or watching a YouTube video. Not only is the available information online unreliable in many cases but is usually also subject to much debate. Not knowing about the discussion holistically, one can easy fall prey to the Dunning–Kruger effect, which we can avoid by being more considerate of facts. As Robin Sharma said, ‘I thought I knew a lot, until I learned a little’.

About Farshad

IT professional, communications specialist and Blogger!

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