Social Science Bites

David Dunning on the Dunning-Kruger Effect

January 3, 2023 5823
David Dunning giving a talk
LISTEN TO DAVID DUNNING NOW!

In the most innocent interpretation, suggesting someone should ‘do their own research’ is a reasonable bit of advice. But in the superheated world of social media discourse, #DoYourOwnResearch is a spicy rejoinder that essentially challenges someone to Google the subject since they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about. But Googling, social psychologist David Dunning pointedly notes, is not research. “The beauty and the terror of the internet,” he tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “is that there’s a lot of terrific information, but there’s also a lot of misinformation and sometimes outright fraud.

“People often don’t have the wherewithal to distinguish.”

This distinguishing is an area where Dunning, a professor at the University of Michigan, does his own research.

While doing your own internet sleuthing isn’t toxic on its face, Dunning suggests that often “you don’t know when you’re researching your way into a false conclusion, and … you don’t know when to stop. The real hard problem with DYOR is when do you know when to stop: you go and you look at a couple of web pages, and ‘Well, you’ve learned something! Terrific!’ But you don’t know how much there is behind it that you still need to learn.”

For the poets in the room, it’s reminiscent of Alexander Pope’s observation:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing;

drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:

there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

and drinking largely sobers us again.”

One driver of DYOR, Dunning adds, is the idea that gaining (and deploying) knowledge is one’s own responsibility, which pretty much runs counter to science, which sees gaining knowledge as a collective enterprise.

One piece of collective effort in which Dunning has made a very public mark is in describing what’s come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, named for Dunning and fellow social psychologist Justin Kruger of New York University, after work they originally described two decades ago in “Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The popular definition of the Dunning-Kruger effect, Dunning explains, is that “people who are incompetent or unskilled or not expert in a field lack expertise to recognize that they lack expertise. So they come to conclusions, decisions, opinions that they think are just fine when they’re, well, wrong.”

Dunning and Kruger’s initial research was based on simple tests – of grammar, logical thinking, classical psychology quizzes, even sense of humor – asking subjects how well they think they’re doing relative to everyone else. They found that the bottom 25 percent of participants tended to think they were doing above average. “But no.”

“To know what you don’t know,” he offers, “you need to know what you need to know to realize that your thinking diverges from that.”

It’s not true in every endeavor, he adds. “I’m a terrible golfer,” Dunning says. “And I’m fully aware that I‘m a terrible golfer!” The effect tends to show up when the skill of assessing outcomes is roughly similar to the skill of achieving outcomes. So when your golf ball flies into the nearby body of water, you don’t need special skills to know that’s bad.

Becoming an expert in everything is out of the question; the real skill will be in identifying who is a legitimate expert and drawing on their insights. (And the right expert, Dunning notes “is the right experts. With an S on the end.”)

For the record, the pair – who just received the 2023 Grawemeyer Award in Psychology for their Dunning-Kruger effect work – did not name the concept after themselves, although, as Dunning says, they’re “tickled pink that our names will forever be associated with the nincompoops, incompetent ignorant cranks, if you will.”

To download an MP3 of this podcast, right-click HERE and save.

Join the debate and discuss this episode with fellow listeners on our Multytude conversation. Multytude is a new social media app that aims to make sense of the online conversation. With support from the SAGE Concept Grant, the Multytude team is working to create a new method of qualitative research for social scientists to better understand what people are saying about the big issues of today.


For a complete listing of past Social Science Bites podcasts, click HERE. You can follow Bites on Twitter @socialscibites and David Edmonds @DavidEdmonds100.

Welcome to the blog for the Social Science Bites podcast: a series of interviews with leading social scientists. Each episode explores an aspect of our social world. You can access all audio and the transcripts from each interview here. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @socialscibites.

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