How to Tell If You’re a Dunning Cougar

We’re all at risk

Jessica Wildfire
Feb 5 · 5 min read

here was this one guy at work, who I wanted to like. He was friendly and outgoing, when he was in a good mood. He had potential. But he couldn’t quit giving himself compliments. He paused mid-sentence to pay tribute to himself. He talked down to his students.

Sometimes he stopped class to talk about how great he was. He always used himself as an example of what to do.

It was painful to watch.

I was scared to give him advice. It always made him angry. His face turned lipstick pink. He clammed up. He got defensive. You had to back way down. One time he told me I didn’t know what I was doing.

This was a problem, given that technically I was his boss. The good news? I figured out how to get rid of my dunning cougar without firing him. I convinced him he was too good to work for me.

What’s a dunning cougar?

It’s something I made up. I got tired of describing arrogant idiots as “someone who suffers from the Dunning-Kruger Effect.”

That’s a chalky mouthful.

The Dunning-Kruger effect was developed by a Cornell psychologist and an NYU professor in the 1990s. They studied a phenomenon that’s plagued human history, and drug it out into the daylight.

Simply put:

The less you know, the more you over-estimate your abilities.

But there’s a problem. The more confidence you show, the more risk you run of turning into what you despise.

So how do you know for sure you’re not one of them?

1. You don’t have to tell anyone how amazing you are

If you’re good at something, people will tell you. They’ll tell other people on your behalf. They’ll come to you for advice. They’ll ask for favors. It feels good to be appreciated for what you do well.

That’s not arrogance. It’s human.

2. You’re grateful for compliments

An honest compliment from someone you respect sustains you for a long time. It makes you want to do even better.

If you feel grateful for compliments you receive on your hard work, then you’re probably not a dunning cougar.

But if you are a dunning cougar, compliments have the opposite effect. They make you complacent and lazy.

They also whet your appetite for more compliments.

3. You feel true shame when you mess up

Shame is a powerful teacher. You feel it when you know you could’ve done better, and chose not to.

A truly good person doesn’t hide from their shame. They face it, and make a plan to change their behavior.

Dunning cougars run from accountability.

If you face the music, you’re not one of them. It actually feels pretty good to admit when you did something wrong, and face the consequences — without making a big production out of it.

4. You ask for advice from the right people

Dunning cougars hate advice. They want to pretend like they know everything already, which keeps them trapped where they are. They’ll pretend to ask for help, when they secretly want validation.

Asking for real advice means you’ve got the guts to listen to it, including some things you don’t want to hear.

So if you actually want to get better at what you do, it means you know you’re not brilliant. That’s a good sign.

5. You consider other things more important than yourself

We all have our selfish moments. But dunning cougars can’t see past them. They think they can run the show. Everything’s about them. They should be in charge, but they can’t explain why.

Someone with only the minimum training and skills suffer from an inflated sense of self. If they could stop broadcasting their own prowess for a second, they’d see a much bigger universe.

A healthy mind puts themselves second or third sometimes. They put their entitlement and pride in the backseat.

6. You look up to someone else

Dunning cougars might pay lip service to the idea of role models and influence. But they just talk the talk, because they know it makes them look good. They draw their heroes from a hat.

Why not? They’re already the best.

They might look up to someone who’s dead, because they think they already are that person.

They think they’re a reincarnation of someone great.

They find someone famous who exhibits some of the traits they claim to have, and then compare themselves to that person.

That’s not how role models work….

Anyone who doesn’t suffer from this effect actually knows they aren’t the best at what they do. They always consider someone else slightly better, even if it’s only at a few things.

7. You never tell yourself “That looks easy…”

Maybe that’s ambitious. It’s better to say you catch yourself when you start looking at someone else’s job and think it must not be that hard or complicated. It’s always harder than it looks.

Someone who’s great at their job makes it look easy. Failing to grasp that is the signature move of dunning cougars.

Hopefully, you see something that looks super easy and think, “There has to be something I’m not catching…”

8. You double-check yourself

There’s a difference between second-guessing yourself and double-checking yourself. Second-guessing implies a lack of confidence.

Double-checking means you know what you need to do, and you’re just making sure you didn’t make a dumb mistake.

You know those happen to everyone.

You’re confirming your original perceptions. You think you did something the right way, but you want to make extra sure.

Dunning cougars lack this trait entirely. They assume they did everything right the first time, because they’re amazing.

It’s a real pain to deal with…

9. You hesitate to throw around superlatives

Dunning cougars love phrases like “the absolute best,” and “the best you’ve ever seen,” and “top of my field.”

They always compare their skills to someone else.

Someone with an accurate sense of their abilities never describes themselves that way, even if others do.

They prefer phrases like, “very good,” and “sufficient.” They want to be known for consistent quality and dependability. They know that being “the best” usually involves a level of personal taste and preference.

10. You’re curious about things

Dunning cougars never get better at their jobs because they think they don’t need do. The opposite of that is someone who realizes they can always get better at what they do.

If they run out of challenges, they start doing something else. They rarely sit back on their throne and preen. If you’re excited about learning and improving, then you’re not a dunning cougar.

We all have our moments

Just about everyone has their Dunning-Kruger moments. We underestimate the difficulty of a new skill. We overrate our intelligence.

It’s fine. Effective people quickly learn the limits of their skill and start working, leveling up as they go. Every notch in your confidence should carve another one in humility.

Dunning cougars remain trapped.

They can’t break out of the prison of their egos. Their brash overconfidence might get them far in life, but never as far as they could’ve gone if they’d just listened to someone for a second.

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Jessica Wildfire

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Life is an amazing journey to nowhere.

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