Scientific Theory Suggests That Low-Performing People Are The Worst Judges Of Their Own Abilities

By Joelle Renstrom | Updated

Dunning-KrugerI love when scientists attempt to understand the inner workings of the human brain on a physiological level, but I’m even more interested in the studies that extend neurological functions to behavior and to our understanding of ourselves. Even if I can understand why certain processes happen in the brain, I don’t always understand how that translates into behavior or thoughts that affect our daily lives, such as our ability (or lack thereof) to reason. One of the aspects about people that constantly blows my mind is the drastic variations in how we perceive the same events and people, including ourselves. Have you ever wondered how some people have a much greater estimation of their own abilities than you do? It turns out the answer doesn’t simply revolve around ego like we might expect. The Dunning-Kruger effect, which comes from Cornell University researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger, suggests that people who are incompetent or unskilled generally tend to regard their abilities as much higher than they actually are — a bias that results from their lack of self-awareness and inability to identify what they know and, more importantly, what they don’t know.

Dunning and Kruger’s research included everyone from dumb criminals — one robber in particular said that he believed smearing lemon juice on his face would make him invisible to security cameras — to comedians. In the criminals, they were interested in whether criminals could accurately identify their own skills and abilities; obviously the criminals who got caught likely overestimated those skills and abilities somewhere along the line. For the comedians, Dunning and Kruger had them rank the funniness of 30 jokes, followed by having undergraduate students rank the funniness of those same jokes to see if the undergrads’ assessment mirrored that of the professional comedians. The undergrads were also asked about how well they thought they did in terms of matching the comedians’ ranking — unsurprisingly, most of them thought their sense of humor was more discriminating and on point (or at least, closer to the pros’ assessments) than average. Here’s where the results get interesting — the undergrads who were only slightly above average in terms of matching the comedians’ ranks had a more accurate ability to self-assess than others. The undergrads who objectively did the best thought they were only slightly above average in their ability to gauge the jokes. The participants who scored the lowest had the most inaccurate view of their own performance and abilities.

Because humor is fairly subjective, Dunning and Kruger conducted similar experiments with more standardized subjects, such as logic and grammar. The results have been consistent: people with the lowest performances also demonstrate the weakest ability to gauge their own abilities. The very lowest of the totem pole tended to greatly overestimate their own abilities — even after receiving feedback and information about how others performed.

Dunning and Kruger reached the conclusion that one’s ability to accurately assess abilities involves some of the same skills as actually performing the task in the first place, which is what leads to the double-whammy for the people who prove to be less competent. To test this theory, Dunning and Kruger provided training in logical reasoning to a group of low performers and found that not only did their reasoning abilities improve, but so did their ability to gauge their own performance.

In other words, people who don’t know how to do something often don’t know they don’t know. And while most of us don’t think we’re in that group, that assumption in itself raises the question or whether we’re right, or whether we simply lack the ability to realize we’re wrong.