The Dunning-Kruger effect

Posted by Xavier Hacking

Ever heard about the Dunning-Kruger effect? I’m so happy I found out about this earlier in 2015. It immediately solved a lot of the questions I had for years on really weird human behavior that I was seeing more and more around me.

The basic idea is that people who are incompetent don’t know that they are incompetent and therefor don’t adjust their actions accordingly.

“The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”

– Charles Bukowski

Below is an interesting chart that shows this principle when you are learning something over time. At the start you don’t know anything, which is clear for yourself. Than after a while you gained a lot more skills. This is the danger area because you may think you know a lot now, but you still can’t oversee the whole knowledge spectrum to put that skill level into perspective. Finally in the expert phase you come to a very painful realization that there is so much more to learn, know and experience that your overall skill level is still rather low, even though compared to others you could be regarded as an expert.


Remember when you first started with that single SAP module or BI tool and after a few months or even years you thought you mastered it? Then you suddenly needed to work in other modules, BusinessObjects was bought by SAP, they came up with HANA etc. etc. I hope the realization at that moment was that there is simply too much to stuff to know about it all within the SAP universe. That’s why we specialize in specific areas.

I find this concept very interesting and it clarifies a lot of things for me. Why are people putting themselves in Idols (America Idol) competitions? Everybody sees them suck at singing and it seems that they truly don’t get why the feedback is so terrible. After multiple seasons people keep going on Shark Tank with idiotic ideas and/or crazy investment proposals; no profit in years, low sales and still asking for millions for a small stake. How is this possible?! These guys are all in the second phase!

But even worse, also people that have a big influence on our personal life are mostly in the hazard group. Think about presidents and other politicians. Their span of topics is so extremely wide that they don’t understand the details, so they are easily manipulated by lobbyist all the time to make a certain decision. This makes them nothing more than actors (in a very bad movie).

Bankers selling financial products that they think they understand, but really don’t. Or what about ‘IT’ managers that make big technical decisions without having any technology background and without understanding the consequences of what they are doing.

Our Dutch PM Mark Rutte recently admitted that he only just learned about the exponential effects of compounded interest. This guy has been in office for over 5 years now, ‘working’ on recovering the country from the worst economic and financial crisis in my lifetime! Okay, at least in the end, after 5 years, he finally admits that he is an incompetent noob, but don’t think he’ll ever step down because of this!

I find it fascination how all these people can do their jobs in full confidence and without any doubts. Doubts are somehow still seen as something bad; something you really shouldn’t have.

So it’s bad to have doubts, while you can only be an expert if you are doubtful. Something is not right here.

Again, really fascinating stuff and it just shows how weird is our society works.

If you want to learn more about this Dunning-Kruger effect you should listen to this excellent podcast by You Are Not So Smart about this topic. Or just check Wikipedia for an overview on the topic. - Dec 31, 2015 | Knowledge sharing
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