The Dunning-Kruger Effect Explains Why Society Is So Screwed-Up

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” -Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

The Happy Neuron
May 12 · 5 min read
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In April of 1995, McArthur Wheeler covered his face in lemon juice and robbed two Pittsburgh area banks. He reasoned that the lemon juice would make his face invisible to security cameras, in the same way that lemon juice is used as invisible ink. He even claimed to have successfully tested the idea with his own Polaroid camera before the robberies. Of course, this was nonsense and he was picked up by police soon after the banks’ security footage was shown on the nightly news. “But I wore the juice,” he said, confused when officers showed up at his house.

Wheeler was originally written off as being just another dumb criminal with a half-baked idea. He was even featured in the 1996 World Almanac for being one of the dumbest criminals ever. But David Dunning, a psychology professor at Cornell, and Justin Kruger, one of Dunning’s graduate students, realized this was a perfect example of a common phenomenon now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

What Is The Dunning-Kruger Effect?

Put simply, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is the tendency for people to misjudge their abilities. People with less than average abilities tend to overestimate their true abilities, while those with higher than average abilities tend to not realize how much better they are. That is, some people are too stupid to know how stupid they are, while smart people assume most can do what they can. In their original 1999 paper entitled “Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments,” Dunning and Kruger claimed 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.”

Their first experiment split participants into four groups to compare their self assessments with their ability to understand logic, humor, and grammar. Based on the results, they produced to the graph below, which seems to hold true across different groups and different subjects.

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A person’s confidence in a given subject does not necessarily reflect his or her competence.

At the bottom left, competence of a given subject is zero, as is confidence. However, as a person learns a bit of the subject, confidence grows substantially. As a person continues to grasp the basics, his or her confidence reaches a maximum, as he or she believes themselves to be among the few that understand the the subject. This peak is often referred to as Mount Stupid. The problem, though, is that the more a person learns about a subject, the more he or she is able to see just how complicated it really is. As seen in the graph, confidence dips sharply. As competence increases confidence bottoms out in what has been dubbed the Valley of Despair. Fortunately, though, confidence begins to grow and a person climbs up the Slope of Enlightenment as he or she gains mastery of a subject.

The Loudest Often Live On Mount Stupid

Unfortunately, those with the loudest voices often have the most confidence but little competence. For example, pundits on both sides of the political spectrum speak for hours about topics they know little about. It’s common to see the news cycle dominated by both liberal and conservative hosts expounding endlessly about science, economics, foreign policy, medicine, etc. What are the odds that they are experts in all of these, let alone one of them? Then where do they get such confidence? Yup, they suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Likewise, politicians like to present themselves as experts when they know very little. Most have seen Trump doling out medical advice to help combat the Covid-19 pandemic during his daily press briefings, yet he most certainly does not have a medical degree. He even had the audacity to continually push for people to try hydroxychloroquine, which, as we now know, increases mortality rates. In 2012, Paul Broun, a member of the House of Representative’s science committee, claimed that the fields of evolution, embryology, and cosmology are “ lies from the pit of hell.” Their false sense of confidence, of course, is easily explained by the Dunning-Kruger effect.

This is also commonly seen on social media, where people share their ideas as if they were experts. In reality, many of the noisiest on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, etc. have only read an article or two, saw another user’s video, or browsed comments. Many clearly nonsensical ideas get shared, spreading potentially dangerous, incorrect information. Perhaps some of the strangest are pastors telling their congregations that a Covid-19 vaccine will contain microchips and that 5-G networks are the cause of the virus. How can someone have such little scientific understanding yet so much confidence? The Dunning-Kruger effect.

On the other hand, the more educated are quiet. Those in the Valley of Despair feel like frauds. For some reason, despite ample evidence to the contrary, some of those well on their way towards mastering a subject feel like they aren’t really that educated, their recognition is due to luck, or they have tricked those around them. This is common with PhD students, as they experience high levels of depression, even though they know far more about their chosen field than the general population.

Society And The Antiscience Movement

Perhaps the biggest threat to society is the growing antiscience movement, which is fueled by the Dunning-Kruger effect. Those on Mount Stupid have the biggest influence, often supporting antiscience candidates, intentionally or unintentionally spreading misinformation, or even helping to create antiscience legislation. Because of this, the public’s trust in science is alarmingly low.

According to the Pew Research Center “As of 2019, 35% of Americans report a great deal of confidence in scientists to act in the public interest.”

In a paper published in PLoS Biology, Peter Hortez claims that in the last decade numerous fields of science, such as climate change, air pollution, evolution, and immunology have come under attack. Even the entire field of geology has been targeted, as it contradicts the belief of some that the Earth is only a few thousand years old, not the 4.5 billion years geologists claim.

And how can a society function while so many are against basic science? It can’t. Science makes society possible. Science gives us electricity, clean water, medicine, among many, many other examples. Attacking science is akin to trying to undo the modern world.

Hortez believes that combating these types of movements, in particular the antivaccination one, requires communicating better with the public. He said “Too often, graduate students and postdoctoral students, as well as junior or midcareer faculty, quickly learn that media activities or public engagement represent unwelcome distractions.” His solution is to start offering media training to scientists and encouraging-or even requiring-them to engage with the public.

This might help reverse the Dunning-Kruger effect, in that it would elevate those in the Valley of Despair to the same level of those on Mount Stupid. If this happens, maybe people would gain a better understanding of science, thus helping society stay together and continue to advance.

Originally published at on May 12, 2020.

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