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Difficult Coworker? It might be the Dunning-Kruger Effect

We all know that one coworker who vastly overestimates their own abilities to impress their boss.  Did you know this phenomenon has a name? The Dunning-Kruger Effect (DKE) is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their ability or knowledge in a certain area. This is usually because of a lack of self-awareness that prevents them from having an accurate assessment of their own knowledge or skills. 

DKE was first presented in 1999 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger at Cornell University. The psychologists tested research participants on their grammar, logic, and sense of humor. They found that those who performed in the bottom 25 percent had rated themselves as far above average. Dunning and Kruger attributed this phenomenon to metacognition, which is the ability to analyze your own thoughts and performance. 

In today’s culture, confidence is a desirable trait that causes many people to pretend to be smarter or more skilled than they actually are. People would rather feign their own level of ability than risk looking inadequate or being embarrassed. Intelligent people can also suffer from DKE because being smart is not the same as developing or learning a new skill. Often people believe that their skills and experience in one area transfers over to another, which is not always the case. Instead, people lack metacognition, or the ability to take a step back and objectively examine oneself. Those who are the least skilled are usually the most likely to overestimate their own abilities. 

DKE can result in what is called the ‘double curse’. This occurs when a person performs poorly but lacks the self-awareness to judge themselves accurately. By doing so, they prevent themselves from learning and growing. DKE has been studied in several domains from emotional intelligence, financial knowledge, logical reasoning, and firearm safety. From these studies, it has been shown that DKE doesn’t only affect incompetent people because all of us have areas in our life where we lack and bias takes hold. The tendency to develop DKE occurs when a person gains a small amount of knowledge in an area about which they were previously ignorant. This can make some feel as though they are now experts until they realize the depth of knowledge about the topic and understand the skills they must still master. 

There are several types of overconfidence. Over precision occurs when a person is overly certain that their answers are the correct ones. These people might appear to be highly competent and persuasive due to their confidence, but they are most often driven by a need for power and status, and the desire to feel as if they are the smartest person in the room. Overestimation occurs when there is a discrepancy between a person’s skills and their perception of those skills. These individuals typically engage in wishful thinking that has harmful consequences. A person who overestimates their abilities may overextend themselves or take dangerous risks. Another type of confidence is over placement. This type causes a person to take unnecessary risks because they believe their skills to be superior. Over placement shows in people with low capabilities who do not have the competence to judge their own skills accurately and has been connected to narcissism and an egocentric perspective. 

To avoid DKE, people should routinely and honestly question their skills and knowledge base and the conclusions they make. People can be their own devil’s advocates by not blindly accepting their own conclusions and instead challenge themselves as to why they might not be correct. People can also seek the help from others who are considered experts or ask a friend for constructive criticism. Question what you believe you known and pay close attention to those who differ in opinion. 

Interestingly enough, those who are considered experts often experience the opposite of DKE. They have less confidence in their abilities and knowledge. This is known as imposter syndrome. Those who have imposter syndrome feel like frauds or experience self-doubt. We should all make it a priority to continue to learn and grow throughout our lives to avoid both DKE and imposter syndrome. 

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