Academic Articles

How good are you at ‘X’?

Where X can be basically any task. Likely your answer is that you are pretty good at X. In fact, you probably think you are above average.

There is an explanation for this: the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is a bias where people generally believe they are better at a task than they are. This effect originated from their 1999 paper titled “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” As you can see from the graph below, all quartiles ranked themselves above average (i.e., >50th percentile) and this bias was largest among the worst performers. The highest performers actually underestimated their aptitude somewhat.

Why is this the case? Well, people who are good at a task, probably have a good sense of what is needed for that task and know generally how well they perform. They may even understimate their performance. On the other hand, people who are not good at a task may not even know what “good” looks like for that task. More technically, there is a lack of self-awareness of metacognition.

How does this matter in your life? Likely in at least two ways.

First, you (and me) are probably not that good at most tasks. One should recognize that our performance perceptions are upwardly biased. Thus, it pays to be humble and learn as much as possible from others. If you learn from others and it turns out you are superior, that is helpful information; but in many cases you will learn from others and recognize some limitations in your current approach.

Second, the Dunning-Kruger effect implies that if you manage other people, you need to be transparent about performance. Giving positive feedback is important. However, the Dunning-Krueger effect implies that people on your team likely overestimate their performance. This doesn’t mean that all feedback needs to be negative, but rather that a fair, balanced assessment is actually helpful to align management and staff expectations.

NPR’s Prairie Home Companion may have been ahead of its time when it said:

“Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *