The Psychology of the Dunning–Kruger Effect

Category: Behavioral Economics.

In 1999, two Cornell University psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, released a paper analyzing the problem of metacognition in people. They conducted a series of tests to understand the psychological processes behind overconfidence, and the findings of their study introduced a new concept to the world of psychology, which is now popularly known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Let’s dissect this psychological concept and learn more about it.

What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive distortion or bias that makes some individuals overestimate their abilities and intelligence. They believe they are more skilled or knowledgeable than they are. Individuals suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect reach wrong conclusions and often commit regrettable errors, but their ignorance prevents them from recognizing their incompetence.

How does it work, and How is it misunderstood?

This phenomenon manifests the most in ill-informed individuals who become overly confident in their knowledge of a particular topic or subject. They revel in a false sense of self-satisfaction, often bordering on delusion.

But this concept gets thrown around incorrectly and in the wrong context, perpetuating misunderstanding. How social media oversimplifies and misinterprets such a complex phenomenon is largely to blame for this.

A crucial aspect of the Dunning-Kruger effect that people get wrong is to whom this concept applies. The Dunning-Kruger bias is not only about overconfident, below-average performers — it never was. It applies to everybody. It serves as a word of caution that we should be humble and cautious when trying things outside our expertise.

Steve Jobs

Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity – not a threat

Steve Jobs

Who is affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect?

Contrary to what you might have seen on social media or elsewhere, anyone can be affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect. Not even intelligent people are spared. Because, at its very core, it’s a cognitive bias prevalent in people regardless of their intelligence level.

Anyone who lacks insight into their abilities and fails to reflect on them can be affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect. You might be a prodigy rocking an IQ of 190. Still, if your culinary skills are severely lacking and you somehow believe you can prepare delicious pot stew, you would be a living, breathing example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Dunning-Kruger effect examples

Here are some Dunning-Kruger effect examples you can easily spot in your everyday life. These will paint a vivid picture of how this cognitive phenomenon occurs in everyday life.

  • That friend who claims to know everything about physics but cannot explain the general theory of relativity.
  • That neighbor who believes they are an expert DIY-er but can’t seem to complete a single project.
  • That shy and introverted coworker with the most creative ideas doesn’t speak up because they are either unsure of them or believe they are terrible.
  • That one relative who thinks they are articulate and brilliant but can’t make it through a sentence without finishing with “I think…”.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is arguably psychology’s most studied and debated cognitive bias. It has carved itself into major clinical and social psychology studies because it sheds light on people’s understanding of their abilities and how these beliefs affect their behavior and decisions.

Start your OKR journey and learn more about factors impacting your organization.

Start on

The Psychology of the Dunning–Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect is believed to be related to difficulties with metacognition, which is the ability to analyze one’s thinking. People with lower metacognition cannot step back and gain an objective view of their thought processes and judgments.

When people lacking metacognition look at things from a very limited perspective, they can’t judge their knowledge and expertise. The Dunning-Kruger effect can lead to erratic behavior, misinformed decisions, or incorrect conclusions.

Impact of Dunning–Kruger Effect on Decision Making

People with the Dunning-Kruger effect typically get more things wrong than they get right. Their skewed judgments, wrong decisions, and bad calls result from constantly overestimating their abilities and underestimating others — all of which come together to give these people some of the worst character traits. Below are some examples of these traits.

  1. Lack of critical thinking

    Those afflicted with this cognition bias fail to develop critical thinking due to a lack of metacognition. Considering their opinions as valid and sacrosanct while dismissing or undermining contradictory views is common for those with this condition.

    This lack of critical thinking prevents people from making informed decisions and ultimately stands in the way of success and achieving goals.

  2. A fragile ego

    In its worst possible form, the Dunning-Kruger effect can lead someone to dangerous levels of self-delusion and egotism. Such individuals simply cannot judge the success or failure of their actions.

    They never hold themselves accountable; being wrong is always an alien concept. Their closed-minded attitudes and myopic views prevent these people from learning from their mistakes and hurt their growth.

  3. Difficulty accepting feedback

    When ordinary people have difficulty accepting feedback, think of how much harder it would be for people suffering from the Dunning-Kruger cognition bias. Every piece of feedback is an insult, and every bit of criticism is a personal attack.

    They can never work on their abilities or adopt uncomfortable corrective behaviors that are not ideal for workplace dynamics, which can negatively impact morale, productivity, and satisfaction at work.

  4. Poor communication

    When faced with challenges beyond their expertise, the Dunning-Kruger effect creates miscommunication among people. They also suffer from hindsight bias as they try to create reasons for their decisions or the lack of them. Bad decisions affect the people involved and the outcomes of actions on both personal and professional fronts.

Traits of those with the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Countering the Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect can land anyone in serious trouble, particularly regarding decision-making or critical thinking. Fortunately, the Dunning-Kruger effect can be overcome through intentional practice and feedback. With improved knowledge and awareness of the bias, individuals can develop strategies for countering the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Why should you avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect?

You have to be aware of your blind spots if you want to get a handle on the situation in a tight spot. And if you were to look at it through Dunning-Kruger-afflicted glasses, you would only end up opening the floodgates to bad decisions and questionable choices.

To counter this effect, you must know how our preconceived notions and biases could impact our decisions.

How to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect?

Now, this is tricky. There is no gold standard or an accepted set of practices, actions, or behavior that keep the Dunning-Kruger effect away from you. Because there is a catch-22: People suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect will never conclude that there might be a fair bit of Dunning-Kruger cognition bias going around in their actions.

It’s still possible to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect or, at the very least, reduce its effects and become aware of one’s real skills and competencies.

The following are some strategies to combat the Dunning-Kruger effect.

  • Start with honestly attempting to understand your level of knowledge and abilities.
  • You can also rope in your friend or your family member. Getting feedback or opinions from others can also help you better understand your capabilities in a particular field.
  • Recognize your strengths and weaknesses and prepare a SWOT analysis when facing a challenging situation.
  • Work with a mentor or coach that can provide constructive criticism and advice for avoiding or combating the Dunning-Kruger effect.
  • And finally, always be patient and don’t rush things.

With a good combination of determination and practice, anyone can overcome the crippling consequences of the Dunning-Kruger effect.


  1. What is an example of the Dunning–Kruger effect?

    Someone with minimal coding experience might consider themselves qualified to take on complex software projects, even though they lack the necessary skills and expertise.

  2. Who suffers from the Dunning–Kruger effect?

    People from all walks of life can suffer from the Dunning–Kruger effect, but it is prevalent among students, entrepreneurs, and those trying to break into new fields or industries.

  3. Why do people have the Dunning–Kruger effect?

    People with the Dunning–Kruger effect fail to understand their limitations. As a result of this, they overestimate their abilities and make incorrect assumptions about their knowledge.

  4. What is the opposite of the Dunning–Kruger effect?

    The opposite of the Dunning–Kruger effect is the “Imposter Syndrome.” Someone with Imposter Syndrome doubts their accomplishments and feels they don’t deserve success. This feeling can lead to anxiety, low self-confidence, and feelings of inadequacy, making it difficult for individuals to take risks or push themselves outside their comfort zone.


The Dunning-Kruger effect is a psychological phenomenon that threatens organizational and interpersonal success if not recognized and treated accordingly. When managing an organization, it is important to have a team of people willing to accept feedback and collaborate. The best way to ensure employee satisfaction and encourage humility among employees is to have frequent open communication. Promoting and celebrating a work culture of self-reflection is key to combating this bias and encouraging employee accountability. Your organization can combat this bias and grow stronger with an understanding and strategy.

Ready to start your OKR journey to help you with employee engagement today?

Book a Free Demo

Related Articles