The Dunning-Kruger Gambit

dunning-kruger_effectA popular gambit used by pseudoskeptics is to claim that the objects of their ridicule suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which low competency individuals believe that they performed much better than they actually had. High competency individuals on the other hand, have a much smaller discrepancy between actual and perceived performance.[1]

It’s very important to note that many people misunderstand the Dunning-Kruger effect. This effect is often portrayed as if incompetent people think they’re better than competent people. This is not what Dunning and Kruger found. What they found was that incompetent people think they’re much better than they actually are. These people do actually understand that they are not as good as experts.

So how do you know when someone is actually suffering from this cognitive bias? The only way you really could know is if you were an experienced expert in the subject at hand and could tell that the other person was not as competent as they believed that they were. The problem is that those suffering from Dunning-Kruger bias wrongfully believe they are more competent than they actually are. So how can you know that you yourself are not suffering from this bias? Maybe you wrongfully believe you are more competent at judging the competency of others than you actually are. The fact is that you can’t really know if someone is subjected to this effect unless you perform some kind of experiment on them.

Since we can’t perform experiments on people just to determine if we can slap the Dunning-Kruger label on them, people should simply stop using this term. In fact, it seems to me that it is the least competent people which are the ones most using this term. They tend to apply it to others as a personal attack so that they don’t have to waste their precious time actually dealing with their opponent’s arguments. They don’t perform any experiments or tests. They don’t indicate how they have the expertise needed to make the diagnosis. They simply pronounce their case as someone suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect would do.



  1. Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (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): 1121–34.

Leave a Reply