Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a type of cognitive bias in which people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are. Essentially, low ability people do not possess the skills needed to recognize their own incompetence. The combination of poor self-awareness and low cognitive ability leads them to overestimate their own capabilities.[1]


The concept of the Dunning-Kruger effect is based on a 1999 paper by Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The pair tested participants on their logic, grammar, and sense of humor, and found that those who performed in the bottom quartile rated their skills far above average. For example, those in the 12th percentile self-rated their expertise to be, on average, in the 62nd percentile.

The researchers attributed the trend to a problem of metacognition—the ability to analyze one’s own thoughts or performance. “Those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it,” they wrote.[2]

The term lends a scientific name and explanation to a problem that many people immediately recognize—that fools are blind to their own foolishness. As Charles Darwin wrote in his book The Descent of Man, "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge."

The effect is named after researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the two social psychologists who first described it. In their original study on this psychological phenomenon, they performed a series of four investigations.

An Overview of the Dunning-Kruger Effect

This phenomenon is something you have likely experienced in real life, perhaps around the dinner table at a holiday family gathering. Throughout the course of the meal, a member of your extended family begins spouting off on a topic at length, boldly proclaiming that he is correct and that everyone else's opinion is stupid, uninformed, and just plain wrong. It may be plainly evident to everyone in the room that this person has no idea what he is talking about, yet he prattles on, blithely oblivious to his own ignorance.

Causes of the Dunning-Kruger Effect

So what explains this psychological effect? Are some people simply too dense, to be blunt, to know how dim-witted they are? Dunning and Kruger suggest that this phenomenon stems from what they refer to as a "dual burden." People are not only incompetent; their incompetence robs them of the mental ability to realize just how inept they are.

Incompetent people tend to:

  • Overestimate their own skill levels
  • Fail to recognize the genuine skill and expertise of other people
  • Fail to recognize their own mistakes and lack of skill

Dunning has pointed out that the very knowledge and skills necessary to be good at a task are the exact same qualities that a person needs to recognize that they are not good at that task. So if a person lacks those abilities, they remain not only bad at that task but ignorant to their own inability.

An Inability to Recognize Lack of Skill and Mistakes

Dunning suggests that deficits in skill and expertise create a two-pronged problem. First, these deficits cause people to perform poorly in the domain in which they are incompetent. Secondly, their erroneous and deficient knowledge makes them unable to recognize their mistakes.

A Lack of Metacognition

The Dunning-Kruger effect is also related to difficulties with metacognition, or the ability to step back and look at one's own behavior and abilities from outside of oneself. People are often only able to evaluate themselves from their own limited and highly subjective point of view. From this limited perspective, they seem highly skilled, knowledgeable, and superior to others. Because of this, people sometimes struggle to have a more realistic view of their own abilities.

A Little Knowledge Can Lead to Overconfidence

Another contributing factor is that sometimes a tiny bit of knowledge on a subject can lead people to mistakenly believe that they know all there is to know about it. As the old saying goes, a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. A person might have the slimmest bit of awareness about a subject, yet thanks to the Dunning-Kruger effect, believe that he or she is an expert.

Other factors that can contribute to the effect include our use of heuristics, or mental shortcuts that allow us to make decisions quickly, and our tendency to seek out patterns even where none exist. Our minds are primed to try to make sense of the disparate array of information we deal with on a daily basis. As we try to cut through the confusion and interpret our own abilities and performance within our individual worlds, it is perhaps not surprising that we sometimes fail so completely to accurately judge how well we do.

Ways to Overcome the Dunning-Kruger Effect

So is there anything that can minimize this phenomenon? Is there a point at which the incompetent actually recognize their own ineptitude? "We are all engines of misbelief," Dunning has suggested. While we are all prone to experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect, learning more about how the mind works and the mistakes we are all susceptible to might be one step toward correcting such patterns.

Dunning and Kruger suggest that as experience with a subject increases, confidence typically declines to more realistic levels. As people learn more about the topic of interest, they begin to recognize their own lack of knowledge and ability. Then as people gain more information and actually become experts on a topic, their confidence levels begin to improve once again.

So what can you do to gain a more realistic assessment of your own abilities in a particular area if you are not sure you can trust your own self-assessment?

  • Keep learning and practicing. Instead of assuming you know all there is to know about a subject, keep digging deeper. Once you gain greater knowledge of a topic, the more likely you are to recognize how much there is still to learn. This can combat the tendency to assume you’re an expert, even if you're not.
  • Ask other people how you're doing. Another effective strategy involves asking others for constructive criticism. While it can sometimes be difficult to hear, such feedback can provide valuable insights into how others perceive your abilities.
  • Question what you know. Even as you learn more and get feedback, it can be easy to only pay attention to things that confirm what you think you already know. This is an example of another type of psychological bias known as the confirmation bias. In order to minimize this tendency, keep challenging your beliefs and expectations. Seek out information that challenges your ideas.

Dunning-Kruger Effect in Zimbabwe

According to renowned UK based Zimbabwean lawyer and academic, Alex Magaisa, in one of his Big Saturday Read articles in November 2019, he described the current government as overestimating their abilities hence putting the entire nation at serious risk. Overestimating their performance means they continue to do the wrong things, while still convinced that they are doing very well.[3]

He wrote this in November 2019 when the country was commemorating the international day against gender based violence. Alex Magaisa wrote that, when President Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mthuli Ncube and other ministers say they are doing well, they mean it. They genuinely think they are performing wonders. Therefore, when Mnangagwa says his government is working hard to fight violence against women, he believes this is true despite abundant evidence to the contrary. Likewise if you asked the 54 African Finance Ministers and central bank governors, Mthuli Ncube and John Mangudya would probably place themselves among the best performers.

He went on to say that, Mnangagwa’s opponents and critics might take it for granted that the man’s failings are obvious even to him and people around him. This is a gross miscalculation. They don’t know that the man does not recognise that he is failing. Instead, he is convinced that he is doing very well. The trouble with people in that zone of zero self-awareness is that they are not receptive to criticism. They are arrogant and stubborn. It’s because they believe they know it all and everyone else is wrong. If there is a problem they truly believe it is someone else’s fault.

In his BSR conclusion he said that he inquired into why Mnangagwa and his team make extraordinary claims of their performance that aren’t backed by reality. This was prompted by Mnangagwa’s claim in November 2019 that his government was working hard to protect women from violence when it was busy using violence against women. It was easy to dismiss this as a political act of deception. He suspected it was more than that. Mnangagwa and his team believed their claims. He suggested that answers may lie in other fields beyond politics and he drew on the Dunning-Kruger Effect to try and make sense of this incredulous behavior. He went on to say that they do not possess the capacity to recognise their own incompetence. They must discover ignorance so that they learn more and improve.

On the sporting arena the Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA) and the Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC) are fighting thinking that they are doing the right thing for football in the country whe in actual fact they are not doing anything to take the game to another level.

Choice of Cabinet Ministers

In 2018 the president implored the need to pick or promoting his cabinet on merit. But unlike in business where sometimes the worst that happens is lower revenue, in public administration the promotion of people to their level of incompetence can kill a nation. He said, “This time when we choose our Cabinet, we will look closely on who occupies this position and that position. So comrades, we have a lot of work to do ahead despite the fact that you won or you lost.

In short, he said there was not going to be over-promotion of MPs to Cabinet. Being a good grassroots campaigner for a legislative seat does not qualify anyone to be a good Cabinet minister. What Zimbabwe needs is a strong executive that blends appropriate skills, experience and political savvy. There exists the possibility that many legislators are ill-suited for national executive office.

This is in no way to demean them. It is simply an acknowledgement that they are good politicians but not necessarily good minders of portfolios that should function optimally to deliver a middle-income economy by 2030.[4]

For Zimbabwe to develop, it requires an administration that is steered by people who know where our nation ought to be and not just merely where it wants to be. The onus is on the President and Parliament to do the right thing and create the environment we need to take Zimbabwe where it should be.


  1. Kendra Cherry, [1], Verywell Mind, Published: 14 June, 2019, Accessed: 4 December, 2020
  2. [2], Psychology Today, Accessed: 4 December, 2020
  3. Alex Magaisa, [3], Big Saturday Read, Published: 30 November, 2019, Accessed: 4 December, 2020
  4. [4], The Sunday Mail, Published: 12 August, 2018, Accessed: 4 December, 2020