Dunning-Kruger Effect

What is it?

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias where people overestimate their competence and readily provide confident opinions or advice on a subject they know very little about. This happens because people think the little knowledge they might possess is sufficient, and they want to appear knowledgeable and authoritative. Dunning-Krugers are happy to provide advice or give their opinion on a wide range of topics and they rarely say "I don't know".

It is important to note that Dunning-Kruger is about people truly and firmly believing that they are knowledgeable and competent. This is different from people intentionally pretending to be competent while knowing too well that they are not.

It is wrong to equate Dunning-Kruger to stupidity, which is a commonly attributed, but unjustified quality. It is not about lack of knowledge, but rather about insufficient or patchy knowledge and knowledge out of context.


Video by Sprouts Learning Co. | Used under Creative Commons license

How it relates to disinformation?

The link between the Dunning-Kruger effect and disinformation lies in the fact that individuals who are under the influence of the Dunning-Kruger effect are more susceptible to believing and spreading disinformation. Here's how it works:

Overconfidence: People experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect tend to have an inflated sense of their knowledge and abilities. They may feel more confident in their understanding of a subject than they actually deserve, leading them to trust their own opinions even in the absence of credible evidence. This overconfidence makes them more prone to accepting and promoting disinformation without critically evaluating its veracity.

Lack of self-awareness: The Dunning-Kruger effect is characterised by a lack of metacognitive skills, meaning individuals have difficulty recognising their own incompetence. This lack of self-awareness makes it challenging for them to discern reliable information from misinformation or disinformation. They may not possess the necessary skills to evaluate sources, fact-check claims, or identify biases, making them vulnerable to being misled by disinformation campaigns.

Confirmation bias: The Dunning-Kruger effect can also contribute to confirmation bias, where individuals seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs and ignore or reject information that contradicts them. People who overestimate their knowledge may be more inclined to selectively consume and share information that aligns with their preconceived notions, inadvertently amplifying the spread of disinformation that supports their biases.

Amplification through social media: Disinformation often spreads rapidly through social media platforms due to their ease of use, wide reach, and algorithms that prioritize engaging content. Individuals influenced by the Dunning-Kruger effect may be more active on social media, driven by their overconfidence in their opinions. This can lead to the amplification and propagation of disinformation, as they share and endorse misleading content.

<a href="https://www.freepik.com/free-photo/blond-man-hero-angry-expression_1030413.htm#query=confidence&position=43&from_view=search&track=sph">Image by kues1</a> on Freepik
Image by kues1 on Freepik

What can I do about Dunning-Kruger effect?

  1. Be curious and ask questions when you don't know a lot about something.
  2. Try to be humble - do you really need to answer that question a friend of yours just asked, or would it be wiser to let someone with greater expertise answer it?
  3. Be honest with yourself and know the limits of your knowledge.
  4. Don't be afraid that you may look incompetent if you do not engage with a topic - nobody knows everything and there are certainly plenty of topics on which you do know a lot, indeed. Stick to them!
  5. Ask yourself whether what you are about to say or write is something you actually know and are sure about it. Or, are you simply guessing and making assumptions? Make sure you communicate clearly which is the case!
  6. As with all biases, remember - it's always easy to spot them in others than in yourself, so do that extra effort and try to observe how you act, speak or write.

Suggested use in training

  • Present the bias to your learners and ask them to come up with Dunning-Kruger examples from their social media feeds or real-life observation
  • Challenge your learners to report a situation where they were personally affected by Dunning-Kruger and acted in a biased manner
  • Discuss the lack of malign intent of people manifesting Dunning-Kruger when they create or originate information, and explain the difference between misinformation, disinformation and malinformation