Dunning-Kruger effect: Are you pickaxing to the plateau or plummeting past the peak?

D to the K-yay! It's Dunning-Kruger. (Wow, I'm an awesome wrapper!)

This is the model that explains why after two hours into an edX Python course you’re stuffing a backpack, searching for motels in central Menlo Park and muttering gibberish to your cat about s3 buckets and a world-beating app that’s the Uber of dentistry.

Still, on the flipside, the model offers solace when you know nothing after six months. Keep going, it gets better.  

This is a phenomenon that, in the words of David Dunning, “visits us all.” It’s not a model that’s about others, or them, it afflicts everyone. It forms part of a wider cognitive bias called naive realism. Our brains are authors of our own reality. We rationalize. Our “self-talk” normally paints us – our ego, what we’ve done, who we are – in a glowing, radiant light.

Unfortunately, this witness cannot be trusted, m’lud.

The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.

David Dunning

Watch out for

The original effect has morphed incorrectly from the original research. It’s “poor performers are overconfident,” not “beginners are overconfident.”

Try to think in terms of probabilities rather than certainties.

Don’t confuse facts (which can be found true or false) with opinions (that can’t). Opinions can usually be prefaced with words like “I think”, “we should” and “they ought.” They are beliefs. The trouble comes when we bend the facts to fit our opinions. Facts shouldn’t bend. And, yes, that’s an opinion.   

This is the is-ought problem or Hume’s law. This brilliant, animated illustration from BBC Radio 4 read by Harry Shearer (aka Principal Skinner) explains it sweetly in less than 90 seconds. The whole series is great, so go listen.

Also see the will vs skill coaching matrix. Managers will often see this behaviour.


Dunning, D. (2011). The Dunning–Kruger Effect: On Being Ignorant of One’s Own Ignorance. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 44, Pages 247-296
Kruger, J. & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
Resnick, B. (June 26, 2019). An expert on human blind spots gives advice on how to think. Vox

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