The Dunning-Kruger Effect is one of my favorite business-relevant psychological ideas because it explains so much. Even if you've never heard the term, you've no doubt experienced the basic idea in action--the people who are least competent tend to be most sure of themselves, while those with genuine skills are frequently wracked with doubts about their abilities.
The idea was laid out by a pair of psychologists named--you guessed it!--David Dunning and Justin Kruger, but they're not the first to notice this bias. British philosopher Bertrand Russell perhaps summed it up best many years earlier: "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt."
The only trouble with the Dunning-Kruger effect? While it's a wildly satisfying explanation for some of the most annoying office behavior (and individuals) you're likely to encounter, it also sadly probably applies to you. If psychologists are right, all of us have a pretty lousy grasp of the limits of our own competence.
Is there any way to fix that? Can you escape this cognitive bias and gain a clear-eyed understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses, so you can work on the latter and lean on the former? Yup, reports Dunning himself in a recent Reddit AMA ("Ask Me Anything"). In the course of the conversation, the Cornell psychologist and co-discoverer of my fave psychological theory explains how to avoid its pernicious effects.
1. Always Be Learning
His first suggestion is the most obvious. "Get competent. Always be learning," Dunning urges.
2. Beware Beginnings
The second important point if you're looking to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect is to be aware of when it's most likely to strike so you can be extra careful to gather relevant information and expertise at those times. When is prime time for DKE? In short, when you're new to a skill or topic.
"Just last month I had to buy a car, for only the fourth time in my life. Knowing this is an uncommon thing for me to do, I spent a lot of time [researching] cars...and also how to buy them," Dunning says, offering himself as an example.
3. Slow Down
Unless you're a world-class expert (and very few of us are), fast decisions are generally more biased decisions, so beware the Dunning-Kruger effect when you're making quick calls, instructs Dunning.
"Our most recent research also suggests one should be wary of quick and impulsive decisions...that those who get caught in DKE errors less are those who deliberate over them, at least a little. People who jump to conclusions are the most prone to overconfident error," he explains. "I have found it useful to explicitly consider how I might be wrong...in a decision. What's wrong with this car deal that seems so attractive? What have I left out in this response about avoiding the DKE?"
4. Know When to Be Confident
Dunning stresses that confidence isn't always unmerited and can sometimes be extremely useful, for, say, "a general on the day of battle." But in-the-moment confidence should be rooted in lots of preparatory self-doubt, learning, and consideration. "Before that day, I want a cautious general who over-plans--one who wants more troops, more ordnance, better contingency plans--so that he or she is best prepared for the day of battle," Dunning says. "I think that analogy works for athletes, too. They don't use confidence to become complacent, but...to put in the extra effort and strategizing that will help them excel."