The more you know, the more you think you know. The incompetence paradox

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A 44-year-old cashier, Wheeler McArthur, robs two banks with his face exposed in broad daylight, and ends up swiftly being arrested. Interrogated about the choice of not wearing any mask, he claimed that he sprayed lemon juice on his face, believing that this would make him invisible to cameras. Some friends told him something about this “trick” and he tested it: he applied lemon juice on his face, then took a picture. However, he didn’t notice, with lemon in his eyes, that he took a picture of the ceiling, and not his face, and he peacefully showed up to the bank, confident in the trick.

How can someone be this stupid, you must be thinking. It’s the same question that David Dunning and Justin Kruger, psychologists from Cornell University, asked themselves. They give the name to the cognitive distortion (bias) that consists in an individual being so incompetent that they don’t know they are.

A 44-year-old cashier, Wheeler McArthur, robs two banks with his face exposed in broad daylight, and ends up swiftly being arrested.

It is a kind of overconfidence in oneself that is particularly scary, because it doesn’t affect just talented people that overestimate themselves, but even people that, although they don’t possess any talent, they think they have one in great measure.

Anyone who falls victim to imposter syndrome (another insidious effect) is incapable of valuing themselves and living their more than earned success with satisfaction and pride. Instead, incompetent people not only don’t admit their limits, but they manage to feel superior, erroneously evaluating their performances.

One of the reasons that the Dunning-Kruger effect seems omnipresent in these times is because of media: not only people are misinformed, but their head is continuously filled with data, facts and false theories that can lead to wrong conclusions, that they will then support with tenacious confidence and extreme partisanship.

In the everyday life, it is common to see people speak with apparent authority about subjects that they only know superficially. At the same time, it is a habit for real experts not to appear too strict in their claims, as they are aware of the vastity of knowledge and how it is difficult to prove something with absolute certainty.

To understand if we are dealing with an unaware and incompetent person, here are the four rules that define the Dunning-Kruger effect:

• people are incapable of recognizing their own incompetence,

• they tend not to recognize the competence of others,

• they are not able to become aware of how incompetent they are in a specific subject,

• if they are trained to increase their competence, they will be able to recognize and accept how incompetent they were in the past.

If you meet an incompetent person, be sympathetic. After all, the necessary skills to do well are those that are necessary to give an evaluation of the same activity. How can one be aware of the fact that someone is doing something wrong if they are not even aware of what the correct way to do it is?

Laura Mondino


  2. 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, 77(6), 1121–1134
  3. Dunning D. The dunning-kruger effect. On being ignorant of one’s own ignorance, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 2011

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