You may have already experienced this scene at work by socializing with friends or organizing a banquet with an extended family: a person who has very little knowledge of the subject claims to know a lot. This person can even boast of being an expert.
This phenomenon has a name: the Dunning Kruger effect. It is not a disease, a syndrome or a mental illness. It exists to a certain extent in all human beings and exists as long as human knowledge, although it has been recently studied and documented in social psychology.
In their 1999 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, David Dunning and Justin Kruger reported data known to philosophers since Socrates, who reportedly said: “the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.”
Charles Darwin followed this in 1871 with “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
In simple terms, incompetent people believe they know more than they really do and tend to be more picky about it.
To test Darwin’s theory, researchers interviewed people on topics such as grammar, reasoning and humor. After each test, they asked the participants how they thought. In particular, participants were asked how many other quiz participants beat them.
The stimulus was shocked by the results, although that confirmed his hypothesis. Again and again, people who scored poorly on the tests scored much higher than their skills.
On average, test participants who reached only the 10th percentile were close to the 70th percentile. Those who knew the least about what they spoke thought they knew as much as the experts.
The results of Dunning and Kruger have been repeated in at least a dozen different areas: mathematics, wine tasting, chess, medical knowledge among surgeons, and gun safety among hunters.
Interest in the Dunning Kruger effect increased during the elections and a few months after the presidency took office. Google seeks to “dunning kruger”, which peaked in May 2017, according to Google Trends, and has remained high since.
The focus on the Dunning Kruger effect has exploded since the end of 2015.
There is also “much more research activity” on the effect than just after its release, Dunning said. In general, interest in a research topic fades in the five years following an innovative study.
“Obviously it has to do with Trump and the various treatments that people have given him,” Dunning said, “So yeah, a lot of it is political. People trying to understand the other side. We have a massive rise in partisanship and it’s become more vicious and extreme, so people are reaching for explanations.”
Although President Trump’s statements are full of errors, lies or inaccuracies, he expresses his confidence.
He says he does not read much because he solves problems “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had.”
He said in interviews that he did not read long reports because “I already know exactly what it is”.
He has “the best words” and quotes his “high levels of intelligence” by rejecting the scientific consensus on climate change.
Decades ago, he said he could end the Cold War: “It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles,” Trump told The Washington Post’s Lois Romano over dinner in 1984. “I think I know most of it anyway.”
“Donald Trump has been overestimating his knowledge for decades,” said Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at the University of Michigan. “It’s not surprising that he would continue that pattern into the White House.”
Dunning-Kruger “offers an explanation for a kind of hubris,” said Steven Sloman, a cognitive psychologist at Brown University.
“The fact is, that’s Trump in a nutshell. He’s a man with zero political skill who has no idea he has zero political skill. And it’s given him extreme confidence.”
Sloman believes that the Dunning Kruger effect has become popular outside the world of research because it is a simple phenomenon that could apply to all of us. And people would desperately know what’s going on in the world.
Many people “cannot wrap their minds around the rise of Trump,” Sloman said.
“He’s exactly the opposite of everything we value in a politician, and he’s the exact opposite of what we thought Americans valued.” Some of these people like to look for something scientific to explain.
Whether people want to understand “the other side” or just look for a family name, the Dunning Kruger effect works like both, said Dunning, and he thinks that explains why interest is growing.
The effects of the Dunning Kruger effect are generally harmless. If you are comfortable discussing questions simply to classify them by the teacher, you will have a direct experience of Dunning-Kruger.
At the other end of the spectrum, the effect can be fatal. Former neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch was sentenced to prison in 2017 for mutilating several patients.
“His performance was pathetic,” one co-surgeon wrote about Duntsch after a botched spinal surgery, according to the Texas Observer.
“He was functioning at a first- or second-year neurosurgical resident level but had no apparent insight into how bad his technique was.”
According to Dunning, the effect is particularly dangerous if an influential person or person with the means to harm has no one who can honestly speak of his mistakes.
He noticed several plane crashes that could have been avoided if the crew had spoken to a rash pilot.
“You get into a situation where people can be too deferential to the people in charge,” Dunning explained. “You have to have people around you that are willing to tell you you’re making an error.”
What happens if the person does not want to admit that he has defects? Are they so convinced of their own perceived knowledge that they will reject the idea of improvement?
It is not surprising (but no less disturbing) that Dunning’s follow-up shows that the poorest artists are less likely to take criticism or show interest in self-improvement.