Analysis: Is it possible to be so ignorant that you ignore even your own ignorance? This is what is postulated by the Dunning-Kruger effect: where people can believe they're smarter than they actually are.

Hear the true story of wannabe criminal mastermind McArthur Wheeler. In 1995, Mr Wheeler audaciously robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight, without even trying to conceal or disguise his face. Tapes from surveillance cameras were shown on the news that same day and he was promptly arrested an hour later.

Mr Wheeler was shocked to have been identified so easily, and the police were rather surprised at this since he made no attempt to hide his identity. When Mr Wheeler saw the incriminating tapes, he was recorded as saying: "But I wore the juice".

Having read some time before that lemon juice could be used as an invisible ink, the unfortunate Mr Wheeler firmly believed that rubbing his face with lemon juice would make him invisible, at least to the surveillance cameras. 

Clearly, Mr Wheeler’s ignorance in the fields of chemistry, disguises, CCTV and the general properties of citrus fruit ran deep, so deep that he was unable to realise just how ignorant he was. 

Is it possible to be so ignorant that you ignore even your own ignorance? This is what is postulated by the Dunning-Kruger effect: unawareness that your limitations could be so great, you don't realise how limited you are and mistakenly believe you're brilliant.

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The effect is named after a scientific paper published in 1999 by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger from Cornell University. The paper describes a series of studies on Cornell students, testing them on humour, logical reasoning and English grammar. 

The students were tasked with ranking jokes according to how funny they were, analysing sentences to detect grammatical errors and establishing the truth of logical statements. They were then asked to rate their performance compared to the average student participating in the test. 

Dunning and Kruger found that, on average, students consistently overrated their skills in all experiments, which did not surprise them. Most of us overrate our abilities, a well-known effect that results in every single person claiming to be an 'above average' driver, belying any car crash statistics. However, some people’s overrating of their abilities are much larger than others.

Indeed, Dunning and Kruger found that the largest overestimation of skills was from those students that had performed the worst. Students whose results put them in the bottom 12% of the class estimated they had performed well above average.

Students whose performance was around average also overestimated their performance, but not to such a great extent. Interestingly, students who performed at the top 25% actually underestimated how well they had done. These results were held consistently across all studies.

Dunning and Kruger thought that maybe participants overrated their own performance not because they thought they were brilliant but rather because they didn´t know how well the others had done. They then designed a new study where after carrying out a test and rating their own performance, participants were shown a selection of tests from their colleagues and asked to rate their performance once again, this time informed by the results of their peers. 



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Once more, the bottom and top performers differed in their response. Those who had performed the worst did not change their assessment of how well they had done in the test, while the top performers increased their own ratings. This suggested to the researchers that the reason why the top performers underrated their work was not so much because they underestimated their own skills, but because they overestimated everyone else´s. Seeing their peers' results corrected this view, while the worst performers remained unfazed. 

Luckily Dunning and Kruger showed that the effect can be reversed. The researchers performed another study where they gave their participants a logical skills test and asked them to assess how well they had done in it, just like in the previous experiments. They then gave participants a short training module on improving logical reasoning, providing them with tools to succeed at such tests.

After the module training, participants were once again asked to rate their own performance. The results of this experiment showed that when participants received training on performing logical skills tests, their ability to assess their own competency in the tests increased. This experiment supported the fact that the reason participants were overrating their performance was simply due to limited knowledge of the test subject. Once that was fixed, the effect disappeared.

Some researchers have claimed that the Dunning-Kruger effect is not a real thing but a statistical artifact. Furthermore, later studies showed that the effect disappeared when participants were given extremely hard tasks, which made everyone underestimate their performance.

However, the fact that training people in how to perform the task helped them assess their own mistakes better suggests that it is indeed the lack of knowledge or skill in the area which drives a mistaken impression of their own performance.

It is also worth noting that a mirror image of the Dunning-Kruger effect exists: the Impostor Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that causes skilled, smart people to doubt their own achievements and believe themselves to be frauds. 

Why is the Dunning-Kruger effect important? Contrary to many opinions, the researchers did not intend to create a weapon meant to make fun of obnoxious people who claim to be experts in everything. Their aim was geared more towards bearing in mind one´s own ignorance when making important decisions.

Lack of knowledge is bad, but a little knowledge can be dangerous, because it gives the illusion of great knowledge and none of its benefits. And if we ignore even our own limitations, then who is to say how much we really know?

Then again, maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about.   


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ