Too stupid to know you’re stupid

Great Errol Morris series in the NY Times this week. Excited enough about part 1 that I’m posting this before reading part  2. Morris is speaking with David Dunning, a Cornell professor who came up with the Dunning-Kruger effect.

When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.


And I became very interested in judgments about the self, simply because, well, people tend to say things, whether it be in everyday life or in the lab, that just couldn’t possibly be true.  And I became fascinated with that.  Not just that people said these positive things about themselves, but they really, really believed them.  Which led to my observation: if you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent…If you knew it, you’d say, “Wait a minute.  The decision I just made does not make much sense.  I had better go and get some independent advice.”   But when you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.


People often come up with answers to problems that are o.k., but are not the best solutions.  The reason they don’t come up with those solutions is that they are simply not aware of them. Stefan Fatsis, in his book “Word Freak,” talks about this when comparing everyday Scrabble players to professional ones.  As he says: “In a way, the living-room player is lucky . . . He has no idea how miserably he fails with almost every turn, how many possible words or optimal plays slip by unnoticed.  The idea of Scrabble greatness doesn’t exist for him.” (p. 128)


The average detective does not realize the clues he or she neglects.  The mediocre doctor is not aware of the diagnostic possibilities or treatments never considered.  The run-of-the-mill lawyer fails to recognize the winning legal argument that is out there.  People fail to reach their potential as professionals, lovers, parents and people simply because they are not aware of the possible.

His fantastic example is of a gentleman from Pittsburgh who robbed a bank in broad daylight with no disguise and was recognized and arrested immediately following his photo appearing on the nightly news. Turns out the gentleman had taken precautionary measures, applying lemon juice to his face to render him invisible to all video cameras. So Dunning took this example and developed this theory that we’re too incompetent to be aware of our incompetence. If we had the knowledge to know we needed to seek objective outside expertise, we would have done so. Without that knowledge, we use what we have and make terrible terrible decisions.

Anyway, great article. All should read.

3 thoughts on “Too stupid to know you’re stupid

  1. Wait, you’re saying some people are stupid and don’t know they are? That could explain about 90% of philosophical discussions out there!

  2. This actually explains the internet… and why I just peed on some guys toothbrush.

    All it takes for good to triumph is for evil men to do nothing.

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