Home > Cognitive Bias, Metacognition > “I’m awesome” “No, you’re not” – the Dunning-Kruger effect

“I’m awesome” “No, you’re not” – the Dunning-Kruger effect

You’ve just taken an exam. As you push through the doors to the refreshing, cool air of the outside world, you feel a weight lift off your shoulders and a childish giddiness makes its way throughout your body. You feel like you really nailed that exam, which is quite the feat, given you only studied for about 30 minutes the night before. Flash-forward two weeks of vigorously patting yourself on the back, and your exam has been graded. Expecting the absolute best, you accept your graded exam from your professor with a flourish and find yourself just a tad confused to find your grade much lower than you expected.

You have fallen victim to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a cognitive bias that describes the tendency of less-skilled people to over-estimate their own abilities relative to those who are more skilled (Pennycook et al. 2017). David Dunning and his associates asked 141 students to give themselves performance evaluations after an exam, and they found that students who performed poorly on the exam were equally unable to predict their level of performance (Dunning et al. 2003). Unlike there poor exam scores, the students’ inability to guess how they did with even remote accuracy was not the result of a lack of effort, as the students were also offered money to give an accurate assessment (Dunning et al. 2003). This is what Dunning refers to as the double curse, which is when someone is not only really bad at an activity, but is also unable to realize that they are bad because of how bad they are at that activity. The double curse is the result of poor metacognitive abilities. Metacognition is a person’s evaluation of their own abilities in relation to task completion (Simons, 2013). Due to their poor skill-level in test-taking, the students who scored poorly were also unable to properly predict their performance on the exam.

However insidious the Dunning-Kruger Effect may seem, Dunning and Kruger were able to prove that it can be taken care of if subjects are taught properly. In another experiment in 1999, Dunning and Kruger gave their subjects a logic problem and asked their subjects to assess how they performed after they had finished the problem, and got the results they expected at this point (Dunning et al. 2003). This time, however, Dunning and Kruger split their subjects into two groups (each group having members who did well and did not do well on the exam). One group was left alone as the control, while in the other each member of the group was given a mini-lecture on how to solve the logic problem. The latter half of the group (especially the less-skilled) were able to provide much more accurate self-evaluations, and therefore judged there performances much more harshly to the point where some of them suffered significant hits to their self-confidence (Dunning et al. 2003). The damaged self-confidence experienced by some of the subjects proved that the Dunning-Kruger Effect could be counteracted by education.

A similar experiment was attempted by Daniel Simons, but yielded different results. Simons conducted a study testing the prevalence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect in a chess and a poker tournament, where subjects were aware of their rankings among the other players, but still had very inaccurate predictions for their performances in the tournaments (Simons, 2013). Since the players were aware of their own skill levels, their poor metacognition was best explained by stubbornness than ignorance. Despite knowing their skills were inferior to many of the players in the tournament, the less skilled players still had wildly optimistic predictions for their performances and continued to give equally optimistic predictions after losing and receiving negative feedback from the researchers (Simons, 2013).

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is not just focused on the less-skilled, it is also present on the other end of the spectrum, taking the form of an irrational modesty. Unlike the less-skilled people, the individuals who did perform well in these experiments did not make inaccurate predictions due to not understanding their own abilities, they made inaccurate predictions because they overestimated the abilities of their peers (Dunning et al. 2003). Much like, their less-skilled counterparts, the metacognitive errors of the more-skilled were fixable. The researchers simply had the more-skilled individuals evaluate the tests of their less-skilled peers and their misjudgments became clear to them.

The core reason the Dunning-Kruger Effect exists is because our self-evaluations of ourselves are not veridical (Dunning et al. 2003). A good deal of the evaluative process is colored by our preconceptions of ourselves (Dunning et al. 2003). Despite what we may think when we evaluate ourselves, a good part of us isn’t looking to change or improve, it’s just looking to confirm what we already think we know.


Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J. (2003). Why people fail to recognize their own               incompetence. Current Directions In Psychological Science, 12(3), 83-87. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.01235

Pennycook, G., Ross, R. M., Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2017). Dunning–kruger effects   in reasoning: Theoretical implications of the failure to recognize   incompetence. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, doi:10.3758/s13423-017-1242-7

Simons, D. J. (2013). Unskilled and optimistic: Overconfident predictions despite calibrated        knowledge of relative skill. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 20(3), 601-607. doi:10.3758/s13423-013-0379-2

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