Have you ever been exasperated by the incompetence of others? Worse, have you ever been amazed by the overconfidence of someone who has repeatedly demonstrated his ineptitude? If so, you’re not alone. This phenomenon is rampant in the dumbed-down, feel-good 21st century Western world.
Two Cornell University psychology professors, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, have done extensive research on this topic, which has resulted in a theory popularly known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Oversimplified, it is their contention that incompetent people often suffer from delusions of superiority (e.g., most politicians), the result being that they overrate their own abilities.
Interestingly, it is the very fact that such people have such a low level of competence that they lack the awareness to accurately assess their own skills. Further, they tend not to recognize the higher skill level in others. Worst of all, because they do not recognize their lack of skills, they are extremely difficult to teach. Over the years, I’ve run into this phenomenon with many job applicants and new employees.
When I was a real estate broker in my late twenties, I became conscious of the fact that I was surrounded by human blasts of hot air from every direction — buyers, sellers, real estate agents, and, above all, attorneys. With just a handful of exceptions, I found that most of the people I dealt with seemed to have an abundance of self-confidence but, to put it bluntly, didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.
Later, when I became an author, it was more of the same. I had to deal with an industry that is saturated with both incompetency and baseless overconfidence — especially in those feeding at the troughs of major publishers. If you’re a longtime reader, you already know my story, so I won’t bore you with the details again except to say that my first book was rejected by twenty-three publishers, along with some stinging rejection letters, some of which were nasty slap-downs.
It quickly became clear to me that the publishing “experts” who rejected my book were clones of one another who recited the same talking points, so I made the decision to ignore their input and, though I had no publishing experience, publish my book myself. The result? To the embarrassment of many in the mainstream publishing industry, I succeeded in promoting my book into a New York Times #1 bestseller.
Which brings me to today’s Internet age, where I find the Dunning-Kruger effect to be more rampant than ever. Incompetence has become a pandemic, as has its bedfellow, overconfidence. There’s something about the Internet that makes the most inept people on the planet believe they know how to build SEO-friendly websites, outsmart Mark Zuckerberg and build Facebook likes exponentially, and make a fortune sitting at the kitchen table in their underwear while hatching get-rich-quick marketing schemes on their laptops.
In the late nineties and early 2000s, I dealt with so many Internet flakes that I thought of changing my last name to Kellogg. It was not only embarrassing, but costly. Now that I am, by default, immersed in the Internet world, I’ve become pretty darn good at identifying the Dunning-Kruger crowd — and, even more important, ignoring those who are part of it.
Having said this, I should point out that there’s another aspect of the Dunning-Kruger effect that you need to be aware of if you are fortunate enough to be among those who are blessed with a high degree of competency: Many people who are highly competent tend to overrate the competency of those with whom they come in contact and underrate their own competency. For lack of a better name, let’s call it the Reverse Dunning-Kruger effect.
When I was a wet-behind-the-ears entrepreneur in my mid-twenties, I tended to be intimidated — even awed — by the hotshots who had all the answers. I couldn’t understand why I was so dumb when everyone around me seemed to be so smart. Little did I know that my feelings of inferiority were a good sign of things to come.
Why? Because I now understand that people who suffer from the Kruger-Dunning effect have no such worries. They really do believe their flattering opinions of themselves, and their false self-assessment blinds them from seeing the depth of their own incompetency.
I recall, some years back, one of the smartest, most competent people I’ve ever worked with telling me that he fears making decisions because he worries about being wrong and looking bad in the eyes of his employees. He said he didn’t trust his own judgment because he felt his opinions were biased and he therefore needed an outsider’s perspective.
This is dangerous thinking. When you’re good at something, it’s a big mistake to assume that other people are good at it as well. Worse, it tends to cause you to underestimate your own ability. To paraphrase a conclusion of Dunning and Kruger, the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error in judging the abilities of others.
Thus, as strange as it may seem, a high level of competence may actually weaken one’s self-confidence, as the competent individual may falsely assume that others have an understanding of the subject at hand that is equivalent to his own. Trust me, they usually don’t.
In case you’re confused or worried about whether you are afflicted by the Dunning-Kruger effect or the Reverse Dunning-Kruger effect, allow me to sum it up this way: Just ask yourself how close your mind-set is to that of a fairly competent guy by the name of Albert Einstein, who once said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”
If you can relate to Einstein’s words, you are almost certainly not afflicted with the Dunning-Kruger effect. That being the case, you should concentrate your efforts on (1) not allowing yourself to become a Reverse Dunning-Kruger victim and (2) steering clear of the Dunning-Kruger types who saturate the world, especially those in your work life.