Tom Lubnau: The Dunning Kruger Effect – Or Why People Who Know Nothing Think They're Experts

Columnist Tom Lubnau writes, "Have you ever watched someone stand in the middle of a room, give a speech on a topic with absolute confidence, and be completely wrong?"

Tom Lubnau

March 05, 20245 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Have you ever watched someone stand in the middle of a room, give a speech on a topic with absolute confidence, and be completely wrong?  The audience sits with shock and horror, wondering how in the world someone who can be so wrong gives a speech with such confidence.

How does a situation like that happen?   The answer revolves around incompetence (as opposed to stupidity – many incompetent people are very smart) and not knowing what we don’t know.  

David Dunning and Justin Kruger began writing about the phenomenon which was ultimately named after them in 1999.  The phenomenon is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.   Why is it important for us to understand this effect?

The Dunning Kruger effect postulates that those people with low ability tend to overestimate their knowledge about a topic.   They learn a little bit about a topic, it sounds good, and  they perceive themselves as an expert on the topic.  

But they don’t know what they don’t know.   And the inability to judge one’s competence is an effect of being incompetent itself, which makes matters worse.  

The research was motivated by a guy named McArthur Wheeler, who, in 1995, covered his face with lemon juice and robbed a couple of banks.  He figured that since the lemon juice made invisible ink, it would make him invisible to the bank’s security cameras.  He was promptly arrested and sent to jail.  

Dunning and Kruger wondered "If Wheeler was too stupid to be a bank robber, perhaps he was also too stupid to know that he was too stupid to be a bank robber — that is, his stupidity protected him from an awareness of his own stupidity."

Additionally, those people who are incompetent overestimate their ability, which gives them a sense of illusory superiority.   So, one might perceive themself as an expert, when in actuality, on this particular topic, they little more than a basic understanding of the topic.  

As Dunning said, “when people are incompetent in the strategies, they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it”.

So, the incompetent not only overestimate their abilities, but they speak on the topic with a persuasive bravado and swagger when in actuality, they are full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Experts, on the other hand, tend to underestimate their abilities, but for a different reason.   Experts assume everyone else knows the same thing they know.  In other words, experts tend to underestimate their capabilities, and overestimate the capabilities of others.  So, they don’t say anything.

A good friend of mine is a fire god. When he walks over a hill, the fire goes out. In his 50 years of firefighting, he has been everywhere, seen everything and has the scars to prove it.  He is a true firefighting expert.

I remember being on a fire or two with my friend and hearing him say, “Why are they doing that?  It isn’t going to do any good . . . and, they might get hurt.”  

I’d ask my friend, as a relatively new firefighter at the time, how do you know that?   My friend would say, “It’s just common sense”  My friend as the true expert, simply assumed we knew what he knew.  

Because he was such a good teacher, ultimately, we did, and it became common sense, but my friend assumed everyone knew what he had developed over a lifetime of fighting fires.  

The Dunning Kruger Effect is made even more severe, because when one takes a position, they tend to defend that position intractably, no matter how wrong they are.   David Dunning says, “We live under the shadow of our own ignorance.”   He also says, “We don’t know the boundary lines of our own ignorance.”

So, when a Wyoming state senator with no background in oil, gas or mining stands on the floor of the Wyoming Senate and talks about how the senator knows more about the energy business than people who have spent their whole lives in the energy business without even talking to folks in the energy business, it is now understandable how that happens.  

Unless one has a good foundation in the energy business, what it needs, what deals are currently being made and the future of the business, one shouldn’t pontificate. 

It is also understandable how the senator became entrenched in the senator’s views, and is not moving from them. 

The sad thing is this legislative session is filled with lots of other examples of Dunning Kruger behavior.

There is hope, though, to combat the effects of the Dunning Kruger effect.  

If you share some positive reinforcement or ask the victim of the Dunning Kruger effect to remember a positive time in their life when good things happened, they are more willing to vary from entrenched view.

Wyoming Senate, you are important elected politicians.  (the positive stroke)

Wipe the lemon juice off your faces and quit telling Wyoming the energy industry what works for them and restore the advanced energy grant program.  (the entrenched view)

Socrates said, “I know I’m intelligent because I know that I know nothing.”  Perhaps some Socratic introspection would be appropriate this legislative session.

Tom Lubnau served in the Wyoming Legislature from 2005 - 2015 and is a former Speaker of the House.

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Tom Lubnau