Ever since Donald J. Trump was elected president, David Dunning’s phone has been ringing off the hook. Dunning, a social psychologist, is one of the lead authors of “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology based on the results of a study he and a student, Justin Kruger, conducted at Cornell in 1999.
As the title suggests, what they found was the existence of a cognitive bias in which the less able people are, the more likely they are to overestimate their abilities. Or as Dunning put it recently over the phone from the University of Michigan, where he now teaches: “People don’t know what they don’t know.”
The Dunning-Kruger effect, as it came to be known, was an immediate hit with armchair psychologists: Everyone knows someone they could diagnose as too dumb to even know it.
Eighteen years later, the concept has achieved a kind of steady virality online, not only because the internet’s atmosphere — “an incredible Wild West of misinformation,” as Dunning puts it — has made it possible for anyone to posture as an expert, but because it is the preferred platform for people to call one another idiots.
As a quick search of Twitter reveals, Dunning-Kruger is invoked nearly every day by people arguing against each other’s intelligence.
(Sample dialogue from October: “Said like a true deluded simpleton Dunning-Kruger!” “You are the one suffering Dunning-Kruger!”) A usage that Dunning finds “unfortunate, and ironic,” as it indicates a misunderstanding of the effect. “We weren’t talking about ‘them out there’ being incompetent.
We were talking about how each of us is incompetent,” he said. “Dunning-Kruger should cause people to reflect on themselves, not to throw epithets at others.”