The Dunning – Kruger effect : Why your self assessment may be wrong

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance – Confucius.

As kids, I am sure some of you might have come across the “Invisible ink” that can be made with lemon juice. Squeeze out the juice from a full lemon, and dip a nib in it. You can now use it to write out secret messages on a piece of paper – which can only be seen if you run a hot iron on it.

Science will tell you that heat causes the otherwise colourless lemon juice to oxidize and turn brown. Something similar happens to apples when left outside for a brief period of time. The average high school student would use this to write secret love letters to his sweetheart, or to slip notes to his friends about the plans for their latest shenanigans. For McArthur Wheeler, however, this sparked off a completely different chain of thought. According to him, an ink that could write an invisible message could also render his face invisible to any camera or video recorder. Emboldened by this logic, he proceeded to rob two banks in a row. Before he could enjoy the spoils of his success, however, the police got their hands on the surveillance tape and he was duly nabbed. Upon being questioned he expressed his surprise as to how such a clever and intelligent plan could have failed.

Wheeler’s over confidence inspired David Dunning and Justin Kruger from the University of Cornell to research into the correlation between our self assessment of a certain skill, and our competence in the same. Through a series of tests, they were able to establish that respondents who were competent in tests under – estimated their own scores, while the respondents who were not so grossly over – estimated theirs. This cognitive bias occurs because, in Dunning’s own words

If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.… The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.

Additionally, people who are competent in a certain skill (mistakenly) assume that the tasks that are easy or trivial for them must be the same for other people. This leads them to conclude that others are equally, if not more, competent than them. Called the Impostor Syndrome, this causes feelings of intense self – doubt in talented/intelligent/gifted individuals. The skills that they are competent in are written off as being easy or not that hard, while the skills that they lack – which are identified in contrast with the people they meet – shine out greatly as personality flaws that further lower their self worth. Philosophers, scientists and authors have described this positive correlation between intelligence and feelings of self – doubt.

One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision – Bertrand Russell

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge – Charles Darwin

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wiseman knows himself to be a fool – William Shakespeare

These cognitive biases are a very part of human nature, and can be observed beyond the fields of academic performance. Intelligence in itself does not bring about self – awareness, instead it brings forth an intense desire to assess one’s self and to know what the results of this assessment are. Quite naturally, the first benchmarks to carry out this self – assessment are the people we see around us – friends, colleagues, people we meet on social media and so forth. In today’s age of instant gratification (Mokita has written about it beautifully here) and make – believe online presence it is very easy to build a negative self image. Thanks to Confirmation Bias – we see and believe only what we want to see and believe – one refuses to acknowledge incidents or instances that reflect his/her superiority in certain skills and actively seeks out and internalizes instances that further strengthen this self image.


A: Oh, I saw you perform on stage. You are such a brilliant dancer!

B: It was nothing, I am sure everyone can dance as well as I do.

C: You seem to have scored a little less in this test

B: I know, I am horrible at it. I don’t think I can perform well in the next test either

Breaking this cycle and developing a positive self image, therefore, begins with developing self awareness and understanding not only the skills or things we are bad at, but also to pat ourselves on the back for things that we are good at. This is a conscious change and takes time, but the day when you can respond to criticism and praise with equal vigour is when you would have taken one more step to a more confident self.

On a lighter note, if you think you are bad at something, chances are that you are really good at it. Or, well, you have hit rock bottom and don’t have anything to worry about anyway.

Samwell Tarly: Ser Alliser’s going to make me fight again tomorrow, isn’t he?
Jon Snow: Yes, he is.
Samwell Tarly: [groans] I’m not going to get any better, you know.
Jon Snow: Well, you can’t get any worse. 

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