Smells Like Thirty-Something SpiritSo… let’s talk about an annoying psychological syndrome that often rears its ugly head in the business environment: THE DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT. And before you ask: NO, that is NOT the title of some new superspy action thriller starring Matt Damon in yet another unconvincing re-tread of the Bourne oeuvre. And YES, the Bourne flicks are now officially their own “oeuvre.” Deal with it.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a psychological condition in which unskilled or untalented people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence prevents them from recognizing the poor quality of their own performance. The word “Anosognosia” refers to a condition in which a person who suffers a disability seems unaware of the existence of his or her disability. That condition is often apparent when dealing with those who manifest symptoms of Dunning-Kruger. To put it bluntly—they are too dumb to realize how dumb they are.

That’s not too surprising, considering all the time and effort the psych industry has dumped into self-esteem training over the past 40 years or so. It makes sense that incompetent or poorly-skilled workers, their egos pumped sky-high since infancy with irrational self-worth, might suffer from a false illusory sense of superiority and rate their own ability much higher than it actually is. But the weird thing about Dunning-Kruger is that, inversely, highly-skilled or more talented workers often suffer from illusory inferiority and underrate their own abilities and performance. So…actual competence may WEAKEN the self-confidence of an extremely competent worker who falsely assumes that everyone else is also functioning at the same high skill level, so the worker fails to acknowledge the actual rarity or high quality of his or her own high degree of skill.

In layman’s terms: Many incompetent employees mistakenly assume they are awesome because they aren’t competent enough to accurately judge their own crappy performance. Meanwhile, many highly-competent and talented employees mistakenly assume that everyone else understands their job as well as they do, so they never correctly appreciate how awesome they are in fulfilling their role.

The Dunning-Kruger effect was first formally put forward in 1999 by Cornell University research psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, but it isn’t a recent idea. Charles Darwin famously said “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge,” and Bertrand Russell also recognized the phenomenon when he wrote “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”

A more controversial (though not entirely surprising) branch of study in this area compares cultural influences and notes their causal relationship with the phenomenon. Research supports the fact that Americans (at least under certain conditions) have a serious psychological tendency to overestimate their own worth. Meanwhile, behavioral research comparing North American vs. East Asian self-assessments reveals that East Asians suffer from the exact opposite syndrome and tend to grossly underestimate their own individual abilities.

In any case… next time you feel the urge to congratulate yourself on your own awesomeness, keep in mind that you might NOT be the ultimate paragon of skill and talent that you think you are. There might even be fancy psychological forces working against you. If in doubt about your actual level of competency, just ask me. I’ll let you know.

And NO, punching me in the face is not an appropriate response.