The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Knowing Our Own Limits

Perhaps the biggest of my weekly indulgences is watching TV whenever I find the time. Of the few shows I’m committed to, I’m very fond of NBC’s The Blacklist, which focuses on the as yet unknown relationship between wanted criminal Raymond Reddington (James Spader) and rookie FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). During the fourth season’s premiere, Reddington chastises an associate: “As you well know, one of the keys to my success is a clear and consistent understanding of my own limitations. So often people overestimate themselves and misapply their gifts… Wisdom is learning the boundaries of one’s designated lane.”

Image result for dunning kruger

What Reddington seeks to correct in his associate is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, named after Professors David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell. It refers to a cognitive bias in which lower-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is. This bias arises due to the inability of lower-skilled people to recognize their lack, which in turn means that they cannot gauge their skill levels accurately. More simply, when one does not realize the extent of what they don’t know, they lose a reference point by which to benchmark their skills. Thus, people simply assume that they know a significant amount about a topic because nothing in their cognitive space tells them otherwise. The effect causes incompetent people to:

  1. fail to recognize their own lack of skill
  2. fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy
  3. fail to accurately gauge skill in others
  4. recognize and acknowledge their own lack of skill only after they are exposed to training for that skill

Intriguingly, the Dunning-Kruger Effect has an inverse corollary that applies to high-ability individuals. Talented people have a tendency to underestimate their relative competence and may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are similarly easy for others. It is this believe that drives some people’s disdain for the less fortunate; they say “Oh, those people should just work harder and get smarter.” Science shows us that, while reaching a fairly high level of expertise and success might be relatively simple for one person, it might be impossible for another.

Johari Window
The Johari Window categorizes personality traits by how they exhibit to oneself and to others.

Profs. Dunning and Kruger note that “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.” This difference between the incompetent and highly competent yields two key results. First, the incompetent believe that they are far above average because they are not aware of their own incompetence. Second, the extremely talented believe the average is far higher than it actually is because they believe people are more similar than what’s true in reality. Both of these perceptual flaws are known as “blind spots” in the Johari Window framework because they are both evident to outside observers but not obvious to people themselves.

Blind spots can be corrected by following the 4 Stages of Competence model. The best way to fill in a blind spot is to recruit others to guide you through these steps:

  1. Unconscious incompetence: One does not understand or know how to do something and does not recognize the deficit. The individual must recognize their own incompetence and the value of learning, before moving on to the next stage.
  2. Conscious incompetence: The person recognizes the deficit and sees learning a new skill as a way to fill the void. Learning from mistakes can be integral at this stage.
  3. Conscious competence: The individual learns how to do something, but demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. There is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
  4. Unconscious competence: The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.
Competence Hierarchy
One must move up the pyramid to develop the correct analysis and intuition.


  1. I have a thought on the causal argument you are making but it looks as if no comments are published. Is there a comments section, which i am missing?proffering

      1. My comment was not posted when I made it. It took quite some time for it to be approved. I would be happy to share my thoughts, but i am not wasting my time with these comments again. It did not even email me that you had replied.i’d be happy to email my thoughts to the author or you. I still refer back to this page occasionally despite the flaws.

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