The Dunning-Kruger Effect Is Probably Not Real

Take-home message:

  • The Dunning-Kruger effect was originally described in 1999 as the observation that people who are terrible at a particular task think they are much better than they are, while people who are very good at it tend to underestimate their competence
  • The Dunning-Kruger effect was never about “dumb people not knowing they are dumb” or about “ignorant people being very arrogant and confident in their lack of knowledge.”
  • Because the effect can be seen in random, computer-generated data, it may not be a real flaw in our thinking and thus may not really exist
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So, here’s my general approach to issues like this.

I’m not especially concerned what a few social science studies say on a question like this—there’s better “data” out there. That data is basically public resonance—the fact that Dunning-Kruger feels real to countless people means it’s probably catching something real, even if the specific claims of any given study don’t match up with popular readings. It means lots of people have noticed that experts in given subjects often display deep uncertainty and intellectual modesty, while people with a little information on a topic don’t realize how complicated the subject domain is, and over-estimate their knowledge. I’ve noticed this effect in myself and in others; I imagine you’ve come across similar situations where hobbyists are more confident than deep experts (not “experts” in quotation marks, to be clear). And so I have a hard time believing the effect “isn’t real” in any meaningful way.

I think there are patterns like this across discourse, where a study gets blown up out of proportion, and someone comes in to debunk the over-inflated, evidence-less argument. You saw it with Sapir-Whorf for instance, and I’ve chronicled a few other cases in this blog post.