Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Dunning-Kruger Effect

Ignorance Isn't Always Bliss: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Part 2: Research shows that not knowing can actually hurt you.

In my first post on the Dunning-Kruger Effect (DKE) we reviewed some basic research about the ways in which ignorance makes it difficult to judge your own performance and knowledge. If you read it, you already know that the phrase "Ignorance Is Bliss" doesn't always hold.

For reference, findings by Dunning & Kruger revealed that those individuals who were least capable in a particular area of knowledge were most likely to overestimate their capability.

It seems that this mistake in judgment exists both because those who are most ignorant/incapable have no standard to which they can compare their own knowledge and performance, and the fact that they rarely receive transparent feedback about their performance. (If you haven't seen the Schitt's Creek episode where Alexis auditions for a play, you're going to want to click here right now and then come back; it's a pretty solid summary of the whole thing.)

I touched a bit on methods to combat this effect in the previous post — assess your knowledge, don't just believe you know. In this follow-up, I'll address that topic more while also discussing those most vulnerable to DKE and its broader impact.

Is Ignorance Bliss?

It's possible that for some people ignorance really is bliss in some cases, but in terms of getting ahead in life, I’d argue that ignorance is typically a problem. According to Dunning and Kruger, ignorance is behind a great deal of incompetence. The researchers assert that incompetent people will:

  1. Overestimate their abilities. They think they are better at something than they really are. The assumption is that they will therefore promise to deliver on things they simply cannot.
  2. Fail to recognize genuine ability in others. They are blinded to the skills of others. This can cause them to hire the wrong people in employment situations as well as in everyday life.
  3. Not recognize the extremity of their inadequacy. They are unaware of what they don’t know and could make risky decisions as a result. Making them unable to then judge the poor outcomes of their own performance and the performance of those they relied on.

Ignorance isn’t sounding all that blissful now, is it?

You can imagine hiring an accountant who cannot provide real financial insight or a contractor who cannot deliver on a project; if you aren't able to judge the incompetence and respond, there could be real consequences - people lose their jobs, businesses close and lives are ruined.

Worse yet, someone falling victim to the DKE might take these projects on themselves and fail miserably and outrageously and then further fail to see how their incompetence led to the failure itself.

If you've ever met someone who is quick to blame others for all of their mistakes, they might be a DKE victim and not know it.

In the first business I ran myself I knew I had to hire experts to do certain work, but there were certainly areas of knowledge in which I had to rely on a professionals' word regarding their expertise because I had no way to personally measure their capabilities. It's a scary place to be, but only because I knew that there could be consequences for misjudging.

But here's the thing: We can all fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Why does the DKE occur?

The Dunning-Kruger Effect occurs because incompetent individuals lack what cognitive psychologists call metacognition in a specific area of knowledge. What is metacognition? It's the ability to think about your own thinking and behavior, which helps you know how well you are performing. Metacognition helps you know when you're judgment is likely to be accurate, and when you're likely to have a lot of uncertainty.

For example, the ability to do a mathematical equation. The skills that enable you to calculate a mathematical problem are the same skills required to recognize if the solution is correct or if a mathematical mistake has been made.

In our society, confidence is seen as one of the most important traits we can have. Many of us would rather save face than risk looking inadequate (think to yourself for a moment, have you ever NOT known the answer to something but made up a response to look competent?). Instead of celebrating the person who is unsure about themselves and is contemplative, we look to the person who is confident in their skills even if they have little to show for it. So people who lack knowledge try to make up for it by confidence.

Let’s be clear though: DKE and incompetence do not equal low IQ.

But if the DKE isn't about stupid people, who does struggle?

Who does the DKE affect?

The truth is, most of us would probably experience DKE at some point in our lives (or on a regular basis). People who are actually skilled and experienced in a particular area may mistakenly believe that their skills and experience are transferable to other areas with which they are less familiar. Even the smartest people can fall victim: Being smart and being knowledgeable are NOT the same thing. Being comfortable with NOT knowing something is the only consistent solution.

As an addiction expert with a Ph.D. in Psychology and Neuroscience, this is something I have to be mindful of. Some people just assume that I must be good at everything else, and I have to say that having others tell you they're certain of your ability in such a way CAN create false confidence. It’s something I have to be aware of so I don’t fall into that trap myself.

But here's the thing: I am pretty capable in neuroscience, statistics, and psychology, but I am aware that I don't know much about construction, veterinary medicine, or a whole slew of other areas of knowledge. The trick is not to pretend.

How do we become less ignorant and more competent?

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is not permanent: People often become aware of and acknowledge their own previous lack of ability after training and time. The trick is to develop awareness that this effect exists (like you're doing right now), and then train yourself to become aware of its potential development early in the process.

Improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities. We can learn more about how the mind works and the mistakes we are all susceptible to because it can reduce the shame and judgment associated with the concept of making a mistake or being ignorant. This might be one step toward correcting such patterns.

One reason why someone may be experiencing DKE is that they're not trained to be self-aware enough. Some people live on autopilot. They never stop and think about what they're doing and the consequences that can come with it. They may not compare their knowledge to what an expert in the field knows (or even know what an expert is expected to know). One amazing way to check yourself is to complete some self-assessments (here is one for construction and here is a simple one for math).

And here's the wonderful truth: Once you recognize that you have a gap in knowledge, you can start filling it. Once you become more knowledgeable, your tendency to fall victim to the DKE will likely be reduced in other areas as well. Why? Because you'll become more mindful of your strongest and weakest areas of knowledge.

Some people are deeply delusional about their capabilities, however, and this can be due in part to some past trauma. By showing confidence and being sure of themselves, these individuals could be using their inability to show weakness as a protective mechanism.

How does the Dunning-Kruger Effect relate to addiction?

Human biases, like DKE, can be an opportunity to increase our confidence, but they can also lead people to underachieve because they don’t know how they could do things better. They may not know what a great achievement looks like. If we could recognize our areas of weakness, then we would be more open to constructive feedback and finding ways to fix them.

One of the most common areas where I see this is on the professional side of the addiction field. Many individuals who work in the field have very little training in areas of knowledge that are VERY important including neuroscience, genetics (and epigenetics), social psychology, abnormal psychology, pharmacology, health psychology, developmental psychology and a slew of clinical techniques like CBT, DBT, Mindfulness, Motivational Interviewing, and more. Still, they've had personal recovery experience and believe that this knowledge alone makes them experts in the field. So they talk about the brain (people use drugs because they release dopamine and that creates pleasure), they talk about genetics ("I have the addiction gene; my parents had it too"), they talk about psychology ("I have an addictive personality") and they believe they're using techniques they've NEVER been trained on. Professionals like this are dangerous because they take a position of authority with those who are struggling and can actually do damage by inappropriately applying tools or making recommendations that are simply not in line with their clients' needs. Beware of professionals like this and ALWAYS get qualifications before you engage with someone.

But a variant of the Dunning-Kruger effect can also play a role in someone not realizing that they have an alcohol problem. For example, you may not believe that your drinking is a problem because you are still able to perform your work duties, attend your children's afterschool activities, and your friends drink the same if not more than you and also have good jobs. You think of an "alcoholic" as someone who needs help, and that alcoholics are unemployed, dirty, unmotivated losers who beg for money on the side of the road. You're not that, so you don't have a problem.

But you may fail to recognize that your work duties have been substandard for years, that you’ve extended yourself financially, and that your health has been declining for a decade but you haven't had your liver checked or have had any other physical assessments performed. You're also not aware that the supposed two drinks you're consuming daily (putting you close to a heavy drinker) are actually four drinks because you're not aware of the standard drink size (1.5 ounces of 80-proof alcohol or 12 ounces of 5% beer).

Your lack of awareness here would mean that you're not dealing with the reality of your drinking but rather with your own subjective opinion about it. That's fine, but there's definitely a gap.

This is one of the main problems I have (besides the shame aspect) with the term "alcoholic." It is so subjective and useless and every person who uses it can create a different meaning to include, or exclude, themselves and others.

How do you avoid the DKE trap?

The following practical steps will have you questioning your own biases and reviewing your actual competencies in no time.

  1. Be informed. Don't just assume you know everything about drinking because you read one article that said wine has antioxidants; do your own research. Get your information from a variety of credible sources (scholarly journals, independent newspapers) and have conversations with people who have different opinions than your own. Listen to their evidence critically and go search for more if you need it.
  2. Ask for feedback. Ask your wife if you are a good partner, ask her if she thinks you drink too much or if drinking interferes with your relationship, and ask your friends if you are showing up for them in the ways they need. Ask a doctor or a health professional. Don’t rely on your personal judgment alone and stay open to the responses you get instead of becoming defensive.
  3. Question what you know. Even as you learn more and get feedback, seek out information that challenges your ideas, not just that which confirms your bias. (This is known as confirmation bias and it's something we all must fight against.) Seeking out ideas that counter yours is likely one of the most effective tools here, along with...
  4. Keep assessing your knowledge in different areas and stay curious about your abilities instead of feeling as if you have to prove to others that you're all-capable. You're not, but you can become more capable by coming to terms with that fact.

Know someone with DKE?

I often come across people with DKE regarding addiction. There are people who constantly try to put down the work I do and the general work of harm reduction and progressive addiction support but are ignorant of the actual content of the work and therefore believe they know everything about it.

That might be another important tip to avoid being a DKE victim: Don't talk about a book, movie, play, or any other piece of work that you've never actually seen, heard, or read. It's common sense, but you'd be surprised how often people have opinions about things they've never consumed.

I am on a quest to have as many of these conversations publicly as I can. If you know someone who believes strongly in there being only one sure way to help someone struggling with an addiction, I’m looking for people to talk to in a live panel, and if you want to become more informed about recovery options that suit your individual needs, join the IGNTD Recovery community.

Connect with me on Facebook / Instagram / LinkedIn / Twitter

More from Adi Jaffe Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today