The Dunning-Kruger Effect Shows Why Some People Think They're Great Even When Their Work Is Terrible
Coined in 1999 by then-Cornell psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the eponymous Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias whereby people who are incompetent at something are unable to recognize their own incompetence. And not only do they fail to recognize their incompetence, they’re also likely to feel confident that they actually are competent.
Unfortunately, we know from the more than 10,000 people who’ve taken the online quiz “How Do You React To Constructive Criticism?” that only 39% of employees handle constructive criticism by systematically dissecting every step leading up to the thing they just got criticized for. They don’t freak out or fight the feedback, instead, they want to understand and correct the underlying issues. Now, it’s not guaranteed that the other 61% are ensconced in Dunning-Kruger, but it’s worth being concerned that they may receive feedback similarly to Pat.
The irony of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is that, Professor Dunning notes, “the knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task—and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task.”
The 1999 paper that launched the Dunning-Kruger Effect was called “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” Across 4 studies, Professor Dunning and his team administered tests of humor, grammar, and logic. And they found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. For example, in one of the studies, Cornell undergrads took a 20-item grammar test. After completing the test, the students estimated how their ability to “identify grammatically correct standard English” compared with others. And as you might expect, the lowest scoring students grossly overestimated their abilities. Those who scored at the 10th percentile (i.e. they scored higher than only 10% of others) rated their grammar abilities at the 67th percentile. In essence, their actual grammar ability was really poor, but they thought they were in the top third of people.
Now, this isn’t hopeless. I recently spoke with Professor Dunning, who now teaches at the University of Michigan, and he told me that one of the problems in many organizations is that many people are underperforming simply because they don’t know that they could be doing better or what really great performance looks like. It’s not that they’re necessarily being defensive, rather they just lack the knowledge. In fact, he told me that research subjects were willing to criticize their own previous poor skills once they were trained up and could see the difference between their previous poor performance and their new improved performance.
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