Understanding the Dunning-Kruger Effect (with Graph)

Understanding the Dunning-Kruger Effect (with Graph)

The concept of the Dunning-Kruger Effect can be easily explained, especially if we use a graph to show how it works.  It’s not rocket science.  Not that I know much about rocket science, but I do know enough to admit that I am far from being an expert.  See what I just did there?  I showed that I am not experiencing the Dunning-Kruger Effect on that subject.

You see, even though I possess very little expertise about the subject of launching rockets into space, I have seen them launched in TV.  I’ve watched movies on the complicated math equations it takes to launch a rocket.  I am fully aware that to be involved the process I need to know light years more than I do.


Not falling under the spell of the Dunning-Kruger Effect does not mean that I am smarter than anyone else. It’s possible for anyone to find themselves under the Dunning-Kruger Effect when thinking about other issues. The key to not falling victim to faulty thinking is acknowledging this simple fact:

‘the more you don’t know about something, the more likely it is that you will think you know a lot about it than you really do.

What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

In very simple terms, the Dunning-Kruger Effect happens when someone knows so little about a subject that they believe they are somewhat of an expert.  The more a person learns about anything at all, the more they realize how much they don’t know.  As they gain more knowledge through reading, listening to experts, and taking classes on the subject, they gradually cross a threshold where they are on their way to becoming a true expert and not just one who thinks they are.

Essentially, anyone can find themselves under the Dunning-Kruger effect when they have no expertise on an issue or subject.  Someone who is not musical has no business expressing their strong opinions on whether and popular singer or musician is talented or not.  Yet, you hear it all the time from opinionated people.  Again, this does not mean they a low IQ.  It simply means that on some subjects, their lack of expertise will make them sound foolish if they express their opinions on the subject. The same is true of politics and sports.

In addition to knowledge, the Dunning-Kruger Effect happens when people overestimate their abilities and are overconfident.

Incidentally, men tend to be 30% more confident about their abilities and women tend to downplay their abilities by 30%.  This leaves a large confidence gap between the sexes.  For children, things are more equal. However, as as girls and boys become teenagers the gap grows.

Who are Dunning and Kruger?

David Dunning and Justin Kruger are psychologists at Cornell University.  These two well educated men were intrigued by the story of a bank robber named McArthur Wheeler.  He believed that video surveillance cameras would not be able to record his face because he had covered it with lemon juice.  This is what initially peaked Dunning and Kruger’s interest in the idea of how a total lack of knowledge about something can blindly lead a person into thinking something that is totally incorrect.

The story is a bit crazy and this video better explains how the Dunning-Kruger effect came to be:

Dunning-Krueger Effect shown with a Graph

Let’s recap.

  • The less someone knows about something, the more likely they are to think they know a lot about it.
  • The more knowledge they gain on a subject, the more they realize that they are inadequate in their limited expertise.
  • As knowledge grows, they cross a threshold to where they actually are closer at becoming an expert.
  • Eventually he moment arrives, through education, experience, or both, that they have legitimate expertise.
  • Being a true expert about something does not mean you won’t fall under the Dunning-Kruger effect in other areas.

A mentioned, these concept also apply to a lack of confidence and over estimating confidence in one’s abilities. However, self confidence is a positive thing that should not be confused with being overconfident.

This graph shows the progression of how one moves through this process. 

Dunning–Kruger Effect 01

The confidence of a person who knows nothing is on the peak of ‘Mount Stupid’, while their competence is in the Valley of Despair.   As they become enlightened, whether though education or experience, they are closer to being an expert – even though they may never get close to it.

An example of a person gaining some insight on a subject through education may be as simple as them watching a NOVA program on space and getting their mind blown by the vastness of space.  Therefore, they would say to themselves.  “There is so much to know about space I realize how far I am away from being an expert on it”.

Sports is an example of a person who gains insight through experience.  If they never play the sport, they may naively think… “That looks easy enough”.  But when they actually play the sport and fail miserably against those are much better, they will correctly acknowledge their lack of competence.

How to Avoid the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Here are something things you can do to ensure you don’t succumb to the trap of making an expert opinion on something you know very little about, and possibly being ridiculed by your peers.

  • Do some research from reliable sources on a subject before you give an opinion on it.
  • Acknowledge that without education and experience, you are more than likely know very little to nothing about any topic.
  • Remember, great expertise on one subject does not mean you won’t fall under the Dunning-Kruger Effect on another subject, especially if you’re not careful.
  • Take Heed!  Nothing is ever as easy as it looks.  Try to understand something in a much broader capacity than you already do.
  • In the case of activities, try to do an activity more fully before relying on what experience you already have.
  • Utilize all the resources at your deposal to be life long self learner.
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