A man sitting at his desk looking at his computer.

Most people have encountered an overconfident coworker who thinks they’re the best employee in the office (when they aren’t). You might feel a bit embarrassed for them if you’re an onlooker, since it can be annoying to listen to someone who thinks they’re an expert when they still have much to learn. 

The phenomenon of overestimating one’s own abilities is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, and it’s more common than you may think. 

What is the Dunning-Kruger effect? 

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a type of cognitive bias (a term used by psychologists to explain a flaw in reasoning). It originates from a 1999 study conducted by American social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The original experiments measured the competence of people in tests of logic, humor and grammar across four different studies, which found that people who were unskilled at something tended to overestimate their abilities and could not recognize their incompetence.

In simpler terms, someone who doesn’t have a great sense of humor might believe they’re laugh-out-loud funny. Or someone who is a terrible driver may believe they're the best driver in their social circle. 

You might view the Dunning-Kruger effect as the opposite of imposter syndrome.

Who can have the Dunning-Kruger effect?

In popular culture, there’s a convenient joke that it’s people with lower intelligence who develop the Dunning-Kruger effect bias. However, the link between a low intelligence quotient (IQ) and the Dunning-Kruger effect is not scientific and is a misinterpretation of the original study, which proposed that people who were unskilled in an area were more likely to overestimate their abilities in that area. Your skill level is not necessarily linked to IQ.

In actuality, the Dunning-Kruger effect can affect anyone, and it is not a measure of intelligence. Anyone can fall prey to believing they are skilled in a discipline when they are not. This is because they lack the basic knowledge of this skill to see otherwise.

Why do people overestimate their own abilities?

A person may overestimate their own abilities when they do not have the proper insight or knowledge to reflect on their abilities objectively, and they lack the self-awareness to realize they are not experts in an area. 

Suppose, for example, that someone is highly skilled in linguistics. They might assume these skills transfer to another language-based discipline like public speaking and develop a false belief that because they have good language skills, they are also fantastic public speakers.

In a 2014 article for Pacific Standard, David Dunning remarked on just how common the Dunning-Kruger effect is, and how anyone can fall prey to it. “College students who hand in exams that will earn them Ds and Fs tend to think their efforts will be worthy of far higher grades; low-performing chess players, bridge players, and medical students, and elderly people applying for a renewed driver’s license, similarly overestimate their competence by a long shot,” Kruger wrote.

Kruger asserts everyone is at risk of overestimating their skills because of a mix of false beliefs carried over from childhood, specific value systems, the habit of importing knowledge from an appropriate category to an inappropriate, dissimilar one, and an “illusory confidence” that comes from education since most people define ignorance as the lack of knowledge. 

That’s a mixed bag, but a more straightforward reason people overestimate their skills is they want to be competent (it feels good to be good at something), and they’re only human!

Are some personalities more prone to the Dunning-Kruger effect?

While anyone can be unskilled in an area and exhibit the Dunning-Kruger effect, some personality types might be more prone to this habit of self-aggrandizing, including people who don’t use critical thinking and those who are less self-aware. 

In terms of the Big Five system of personality, there is likely a more prominent curve of people exhibiting the Dunning-Kruger effect in low scores of Openness. 

People who score high in Openness are more open to new experiences, use abstract thinking to grasp new ideas and concepts, and enjoy learning new skills and accepting new information. They are more likely to recognize their limitations in certain areas and “know what they don't know.”

On the contrary, people who score low in Openness tend to be more rigid in their thinking, resist new ideas, and are confident in their own perspectives. As such, they may be less likely to admit they are wrong. It isn’t that people with low Openness can’t learn to be more self-aware. It’s that they tend to be more stubborn in accepting new ideas and, thus, may not allow themselves to analyze their beliefs or skill sets with an objective eye.

Tips for overcoming the Dunning-Kruger effect 

While you may not immediately recognize that you’re overestimating your skills, you can take charge of your skill set by continuing your education. If there’s a skill you assume you are already good at, take another look. Try to reassess and learn more about the technicalities of this discipline. Are you indeed an expert? 

Here are the easiest ways to prevent yourself from over-inflating your skills:

  • Always question your knowledge. Read new studies, look for information and learn new processes.
  • Ask yourself where you need to hone your skills and where you might be wrong.
  • Listen to different viewpoints. Don’t dismiss them as false.
  • Accept constructive criticism from friends, co-workers and bosses.
  • Try to keep an open mind. If you are struggling, try the tips in this article to become more open-minded.
  • Ask others for feedback on your skills, knowledge and behavior.

Summing it up: We are all over-confident sometimes

While some personality traits may make you more prone to the Dunning-Kruger effect, anyone can develop this over-confident cognitive bias. If you think you might be overestimating your skills, take a step back and listen to the feedback of others. Often, you won’t see where you’re wrong  — and that’s okay. Everyone is human, and we all have blind spots. Remember, a healthy dose of humility and constant learning can help us avoid the pitfalls of overconfidence. So keep an open mind and continue to grow, both personally and professionally. Who knows, you might discover a new skill or passion along the way! 

Cianna Garrison
Cianna Garrison holds a B.A. in English from Arizona State University and works as a freelance writer. She fell in love with psychology and personality type theory back in 2011. Since then, she has enjoyed continually learning about the 16 personality types. As an INFJ, she lives for the creative arts, and even when she isn’t working, she’s probably still writing.