On social media, people are constantly being accused of being the best proof of the Dunning-Kruger effect. The attack associated with this popular scientific term is that someone thinks they are smart precisely because they are particularly stupid. Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger presented their theory in a 1999 paper. According to this theory, people with little knowledge overestimate themselves because they have no idea how much they don’t know.

It’s great to have so much publicity, Dunning recently said in a “Scientific American” podcast. But he wishes the term wasn’t used as a swear word, “because it’s really about thinking about yourself and knowing that there might be things you don’t know. It’s not about judging other people .”

The ones who scream loudest

Sometimes ridiculed and even controversial among experts, the effect, which sounds so obvious, has a huge fan base among the public. Because everyone occasionally has the impression that the person they are talking to knows very little about a topic, but considers themselves to be the greatest experts. “You come across this quite often in everyday life,” says social psychologist Hans-Peter Erb from the Helmut Schmidt University of the Bundeswehr in Hamburg. “Those who shout loudest are usually those who have the least idea.”

The paradoxical tendency to overestimate oneself can be dangerous. For the person who makes a medical diagnosis after a Google search or who thinks they are the new stock market expert after watching three instructional videos. For others, when the 18-year-old novice driver thinks he drives better than everyone else. And for companies when employees do not understand the consequences of their actions.

No idea of ​​your own incompetence

According to the two US psychologists, the basis of the phenomenon is that people are generally poor at realistically assessing their knowledge, skills or performance: According to studies, more than 90 percent of US drivers are convinced that they are above-average drivers. Even when watching football, discussing financial questions or discussing the climate crisis, it is often clear that people quickly believe that they know everything.

Dunning and Kruger discovered the effect in a series of tests with students who had to complete questionnaires and then assess how well they performed in comparison to the others. In the worst quarter of all times, many people believed they were doing much better – even when they saw the bows of the best participants. They were unable to notice their own incompetence or to recognize – and acknowledge – the competence of people with more specialist knowledge.

Further tests showed that beginners initially approach something with respect. However, as soon as they have acquired their first small skills, they tend to seriously overestimate themselves. A little experience – and the ego gallops away from performance.

Dunning-Kruger effect as a career booster – and educational obstacle

But why does such a cognitive distortion even exist when it can have so many negative consequences? On the one hand, overestimation of oneself strengthens self-esteem and confidence in one’s own abilities, as Hamburg expert Erb explains. “And those who have more confidence in themselves usually achieve more.” People who are convinced that they are ignorant often get further in their careers than clever, low-level people. This is also due to the influence on others: people who overestimate themselves are often perceived as particularly competent and decisive.

The fool and the wise

The Dunning-Kruger effect has hardly found its way into specialist literature – probably because it seems too trivial. More than 400 years ago, the English poet William Shakespeare included the sentence in his play “As You Like It”: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” (“The fool thinks he is wise, but the wise man knows he is a fool.”)

In addition, there are certainly critical voices about the original work from 1999. The mathematician Eric Gaze from Bowdoin College in Brunswick (USA) pointed out last year in “The Conversation”, a platform for contributions from researchers and academics, that the mathematical approach , which was used to demonstrate the effect, may be incorrect. The calculation method exaggerates the overestimation of the bottom 25 percent of participants, according to Gaze.

Dunning explained that only the original study would be taken into account for the criticism. The connection was then examined in a series of further analyses.

Even though there may be statistical limitations, he doesn’t doubt the connection itself, says Erb. “I believe in the Dunning-Kruger effect.”