The Dunning–Kruger Effect Gets My Goat


Much of the humour in the comic strip “Dilbert” is based on one of the characters demonstrating ignorance without being aware of their ignorance. This behaviour has a name, The Dunning–Kruger Effect, and in real life it makes my blood boil.

What is The Dunning–Kruger Effect?

“… ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” – Charles Darwin

The Dunning–Kruger Effect is what is known as a cognitive bias. A cognitive bias is where our minds take a short cut which results in an illogical decision. Wikipedia lists 167 different cognitive biases.

The Dunning–Kruger Effect states that when people who lack knowledge or skill in an area, they tend to be over confident in their abilities, don’t recognize real ability in other people and are unaware of their lack of knowledge.

“If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent. […] the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is. – David Dunning

Dunning and Kruger say that education and training can correct this bias in people.

The Other Side of The Dunning–Kruger Effect

As the Charles Darwin quote above suggests, people who are skilled and knowledgeable, tend to be less confident. In my case I find that the more I know about a topic, the more aware I become of how things can go wrong. I come to believe that there are important aspects of the topic that I am still unaware of. This knowledge and belief make it hard for me to act with confidence.

Nate Silver’s “prediction paradox” supports this view. He points out that less confident someone is in their prediction, the more likely they are to be right. Unfortunately, most people will trust some who appears confident over someone who is not.

Why The Dunning–Kruger Effect Gets Me Angry

Several times over my life I have gone through some very unpleasant experiences where The Dunning–Kruger Effect played a big role. These were situations where I was knowledgeable about an issue to a much greater degree than others who then ignored my opinions, which lead to bad decisions. Bad decisions that I then had to try to work around.

These situations often created a great deal of anger within myself. I was angry at the less knowledgeable people because they didn’t take my opinions seriously. In my mind I would scream, “Why can’t you see that you fool!” That isn’t a diplomatically effective way to talk and I was usually able to keep my mouth shut. I suspect they got the message anyway.

Part of my anger was with myself, but, as with others, my behaviour reflected my own cognitive biases.

  • Since I was aware of the danger that I might be the one who suffered from The Dunning–Kruger Effect, I was hesitant to speak out forcefully, since it could be me that was in the wrong. When I did speak out, I came across as tentative and unsure. That made it easy for others to ignore or discount my opinions.
  • I also suffered from The Curse of Knowledge. That is a cognitive bias where you assume that if you know something, then others know it as well. In retrospect I realized that because I assumed too much about the other’s level of knowledge before I talked to them, I wasn’t in a position to explain the knowledge effectively when I became aware of their ignorance.

People will develop their positions quickly after they begin to consider an issue and then stick to it. If you are to have a real effect on their views, it is important to convey information before they have begun to form their opinion.

How Can I Use The Dunning–Kruger Effect In A Story?

In my better films, like “Line of Taxis”, I have taken emotions I have experienced and placed them in a different context. I have never done this consciously with the anger I felt because of The Dunning–Kruger Effect. Maybe my feelings are still too raw to use.

I think that The Dunning–Kruger Effect and other cognitive biases can provide a basis for more complex character and motivations. They allow a way for a “bad guy” to behave badly, when they are not really a bad person; just flawed in their thinking.

Off hand, I don’t see cognitive biases as a basis for a story, but they can certainly add complexity to a conflict situation.

In “The Barrier” I can see some aspects of The Dunning–Kruger Effect. Both the protagonist, Arthur Macdonald, and his boss, Brandon Baker, struggle against it. Since I didn’t try to include it deliberately, I didn’t develop it fully. When it comes time to revise the movie, there may be some opportunity to exploit cognitive biases much more.

For More Information

If you want to know more about The Dunning–Kruger Effect and cognitive bias, Wikipedia has several articles you can read.

You can watch the movies I mention in this blog on these pages:

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