Does the Dunning-Kruger Effect help to explain bad bosses and overrated co-workers?

On occasion I encounter references to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which pertains to how competent and incompetent people assess their own abilities. Here’s a chunk of how Wikipedia explains it:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.

Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University conclude, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”

In other words, incompetent people overrate themselves, and competent people overrate others.

Uh oh, we’ve got a problem if this is a widespread condition…

And in the workplace?

The Dunning-Kruger Effect has major implications for the workplace. It likely translates into incompetent people demanding better pay and perks, and regarding themselves as especially worthy of elevation to management positions. They may be more effective, or at least more assertive, when it comes to self-promotion.

By contrast, competent people may well be more modest about touting themselves and their accomplishments. Some may self-select out of opportunities and promotion possibilities, figuring that other more worthy candidates will apply. They may be less likely to see themselves as leaders.

Heirs to long-held beliefs

Researchers Dunning and Kruger have observed that their theories have historical antecedents, as the Wikipedia entry notes:

Although the Dunning–Kruger effect was put forward in 1999, Dunning and Kruger have noted similar historical observations from philosophers and scientists, including Confucius (“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”), Bertrand Russell (“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision”), and Charles Darwin, who they quoted in their original paper (“ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”). Geraint Fuller, commenting on the paper, noted that Shakespeare expressed similar sentiment in As You Like It (“The Foole doth thinke he is wise, but the wiseman knowes himselfe to be a Foole.” (V.i)).

This means, of course, that we should expect to see the Dunning-Kruger Effect playing out before us, in all its glory, for some time to come.

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Note: Footnote numbers were removed from the Wikipedia quotes above.

5 responses

  1. Very interesting. It is critical to continue this research and public education
    to give language and credence to the Bullying experience.

  2. Another great post! I have seen several examples of the overrated incompetent in my day, as well as worthy folks who ho unheralded. Both truly upset the apple cart in many a workplace!

  3. In the modern workplace it seems competence applies to how well you toot your own horn and not necessarily how well you do the job. The office bullies where I worked were lacking in competence but they were skilled at creating the impression of competence with key people. Taking credit for another employee’s work, blaming mistakes on someone else, ingratiating themselves with higher ups were a few of the tactics they used to mask incompetence.

  4. Pingback: How forces keep the best employees down | Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill

  5. Pingback: Completely absurd reasons why bullies get ahead | Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill

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