Published on July 9, 2020

The Kruger-Dunning effect

In 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning wrote a paper called “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”. They noted that “People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains”. Because of this they “reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices”. This makes sense: if you overestimate your abilities, at some point reality will prove you wrong and you will suffer unexpected and generally unfortunate consequences.

You may have wasted your own or other people’s time, but it may also entail that you seriously harm yourself or others.

What Kruger & Dunning “discovered” is that people with low levels of domain competence tend to exhibit an equally low level of the metacognitive abilities to realize they are incompetent: they are “unskilled and unaware of it”. Hence, they judge their competence as adequate or good, while they are still pretty incompetent. While this is a unfortunate on an individual level, it may be disastrous on a societal level. Especially if policy makers, managers, and in general authorities, overestimate their abilities and remain completely unaware of this, even in the face of utterly failing policies. This lead to wasted resources at best and widespread harm and destruction at worst.

Progressing to mastery

The way the Kruger-Dunning effect manifests itself during learning is straightforward. When you do not know anything about a topic you rate your competence as low. Most knowledge acquisition starts – rapidly and without much effort – with the adoption of an informative and explanatory narrative from an authority figure. This is the first step of knowledge and skill acquisition. Initially you need to hear the narrative a few times, but soon you become proficient in the explanatory narrative: you know the narrative components and can predict what will come. This is also the moment that you can formulate the narrative independently, which gives a sense of mastery: you mastered the narrative, you can give the proper answers within the new knowledge domain, and you now have a basis of confidence.

At the same time you still lack insight in the real-world aspects of applying the just acquired knowledge. Lacking this insight, you are at peak confidence, you think the real-world application of your new (narrative level) knowledge is simple, straightforward, and even obvious.

Kruger-Dunning effect

The normal progression towards true mastery is to start applying your new knowledge and go through a discovery and skill-development phase associated with the real-world aspects of your newly acquired narrative. Here you discover that real-world mastery not only requires narrative mastery, but it forces you take the intricacies of reality into account. Strategies that appeared straightforward have unexpected consequences that you only gradually learn to deal with, and other strategies work only when executed with a skill level that requires considerable practice. You discover: “it is complicated”, your good intentions and contributions are no guarantee to produce outcomes you foresaw. In fact you might screw-up a few times, be corrected regularly, and even be ridiculed due to your incompetence and naiveté.

Rapidly your initial sense of competence deflates and you pass what is called the valley of despair. You think “It is not easy at all and I’ll never master this!”. Weirdly enough, this disillusionment with your narrative’s validity is a sure sign of your growing real-world competence since it signifies the gradual appreciation of the real-world aspects of the domain, and the gradual transition from “book knowledge” into skilled behavior. Once the real-world aspects are sufficiently mastered they can become ever-more self-initiated, and your self-guided interactions will work out as intended (mostly that is).

But, although your real-world mastery increases, your respect for the real-world intricacies remains. While you’re competence rises, so does your experience and appreciation with the efforts required to make it work as intended. High competence is always respectful. You might say “I’ll find a way to do it”, but you do not expect it to be effortless: it rarely is. And as multiple thinkers have observed, the more you know, the more you know what you do not know. This curtails your justified feeling of competence to levels well below you initial inflated explanatory narrative competence.

Individuals who developed many and diverse skill domains to the level of respectful competence, represent a lot of knowledge about the structures of reality and they have developed many subtle ways to guide reality in a desired direction. These high level skills (tacit knowledge) are neither easy to communicate, nor easily appreciated by the unskilled. In fact the higher the skill-level the easier it seems.

Remaining at peak confidence

The previous assumed a true effort to progress to real-world mastery. But that process came with fairly high and prolonged self-confidence costs. Suppose now that your original self-esteem was pretty low and that narrative adoption and mastery inflated your confidence to really high levels. Will you allow your self-esteem to be returned to a level similar to your original sense of incompetence and inadequacy? Will you pass through the valley of despair in the hope of becoming truly competent?

Or will you protect your inflated sense of confidence? You have just mastered the adopted narrative to proficiency, you can explain it to others, you can say the proper things, think narrative-appropriate thoughts, and correct others if they don’t. As long as you do not progress towards real-world mastery you can remain on an island of self-esteem that is appropriately named ‘Peak confidence’.

And you can do that by just preventing any application of your narrative in the real-world.

What will you do? Allow your first fragile and now inflated self-esteem to be lowered again or will you actively maintain the comfort of peak confidence? If you choose the latter you only have to make the explanatory narrative your ideology whilst preventing yourself from any real-world application of your narrative. You speak it and repeat it as often as you want, but since you never apply it you will never screw up, never be corrected, and never be ridiculed. You will not learn anything of value, but you will also be shielded from indications of your fallibility.

Maintaining peak confidence is alluringly easy. Even when applying your ideology – the explanatory narrative is now part of your identity – does not lead to the desired outcome it cannot be blamed on you, nor can it be the ideology itself that is flawed, your overly favorable views of your competence will convince you of this. And if it is neither you nor the ideology that is wrong, it must be the world; in particular those others that frustrate the expected real-world benefits of your ideology. These others are the problem: they create and maintain a world that frustrates the realization of the potential of your precious narrative. You are correct and those others need to change.

If only they understood the world as you do! If only they adopted the ideology that you know so well and that made you feel competent! Why not spread your ideology actively and start proselytizing? The more people who adopt your ideology, the more it will bolster your convictions and the further your self-esteem will be raised. Others listened to you, they gained competence boost from your insights, they tell you how well you master your ideology. More and more they form a bubble around you that shields you from other explanatory narratives and the intricacies of applying it in the real world. The more effective your proselytizing, the less you will be exposed to people and situations that expose your lack of real-world competence. And the more comfortable and secure your island of self-esteem feels.

This sense of comfort is worth fighting for; if your sense of comfort deflates, so does your identity. Your low self-esteem will reappear with a vengeance, since you have not gained much real-world mastery other than through proselytizing a narrative without mastering the real-world skills to apply it. So, any dissenting voice, in particular anyone who confronts your ideology – the narrative on which your self-esteem depends; is an existential risk. These might expose you as an inadequate actor in the world that – deep down – you know you still are.

Cost of Learning

Defending the ideology

Your self-esteem is now firmly dependent on the adoption of your ideology in your immediate environment, your in-group.

If you are confronted with a dissenting voice, your first tactic will be to convince the other with the best arguments your ideology can provide you with. If your narrative stems from the Bible you might talk about God’s love and commandments. If you are woke, you will discuss intersectionalism, white guilt, and patriarchy. If you adhere to a white nationalist narrative you will laud the benefits of the Arian race in comparison with other races and promote racial segregation and traditional values. If you espouse a socialist ideology you convince others of the oppression of workers by the capitalist class. And if you have adopted the vegan narrative you convince meat-eaters of their irresponsible behavior towards animal well-fare and energy use.

Whatever ideology you adhere to is ultimately irrelevant. Your explanatory narrative is the only one you are proficient in and have accepted both as truth an as replacement of real-world mastery. It is therefore true by default and hence infallible and complete: it is one totalizing perspective to explain all that needs explaining and all that can be explained. All your arguments stem from it and they are always sufficient and complete. And since you did not master other explanatory narratives, you are impervious to arguments that do directly relate to your ideology; you simply see no value in them. In fact you can only represent the arguments of others in relation to and limited by your ideology. This leads to straw man representations of the viewpoints of others that you then attack with the best arguments your explanatory narrative can produce.

And that feels good because you always win the argument. That you win the argument by attacking a straw man position that nobody actually holds is irrelevant, because the difference between your straw man and the actual position of others eludes you. What does not elude you is that you win all arguments. So if there was doubt left it disappears and you feel even more certain.

But how about those who do not argue with you, that just do not take you seriously or that remain unconvinced by your infallible argumentation: who do not accept the validity of your narrative and the authority of those that adhere to it? How to deal with these irritating people who refuse to see the light that you have seen?

Easy. You feel you are correct. And because you feel no doubt, you must be correct. And they are wrong, misguided, pitiable, and likely lost forever. You see no value in them and feel no need to protect them because of that. Quite on the contrary. The moment when you and your in-group gain sufficient social power you can deal with them by offering them a choice: adopt the ideology or be excluded or otherwise suppressed, made irrelevant or destroyed. You are a true authoritarian.

So what happened?

You got trapped in the perfect closed world that the coping mode allows us to create. It self-maintains the illusion of perfection because it closes itself from the being confronted by its imperfections. Real-world influences that cannot be fit in the narrative world are rejected in favor of ever more elaborate narrative constructs that explain why the real-world can and should be discounted in favor of the narrative we keep repeating.

Instead of using your intelligence to ever-improve and generalize your understanding of the world, it does just the opposite: you used your intelligence to protect youself from any (sometimes painful) learning experience that reduces your inadequacy. The result is that your inadequacy becomes a central part of your identity. This fits with what we have written down in part 3 of Coping & Co-creation in the part on the normative identity style.