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Dunning-Kruger effect – This is why some people think they are virologists after googling twice

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People with little knowledge in particular often overestimate their abilities and therefore fail to recognize the achievements of more competent people. That’s what lies behind it.

What do amateur virologists on social media and bank robber McArthur Weeler have in common? What sounds like the beginning of a bad joke is the origin of a common psychological phenomenon: the Dunning-Kruger effect. This effect describes the overestimation of our own abilities and can lead to us not continuing our education. But one by one.

Recognized despite the lemon on his face

In 1995, one of the most absurd bank robberies in history took place in Pittsburgh: a man named McArthur Weeler robbed two bank branches in the middle of the day – but, to the astonishment of the police, he was not wearing a face mask.

When the handcuffs later clicked and the police played him the surveillance footage from the bank branches, he was very irritated. He had rubbed lemon juice on his face before the bank robbery?! Because this juice was used as invisible ink (in many crook flicks), McArthur Weeler firmly believed it would help him too.

Inspired by ignorance and incompetence

For the American psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, his case was emblematic of a phenomenon that later became known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Accordingly, incompetent people often overestimate their own abilities – while at the same time underestimating the achievements of more competent people. The problem: They aren’t even aware of it.

How it all began


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The two US psychologists first described the effect in 1999: For a study, they gave students various logic and grammar tests. After completing the tests, the participants were asked to rate how well they had performed compared to the other test subjects.

The result: Those with the worst results were convinced that they had found the best solutions. But that’s not all: When they were allowed to see the tests of the better participants, they still firmly believed in their supposed superiority.

This effect is currently being used by some social psychologists to explain the behavior of many people on social media: when, in times of a pandemic, a quick Google search is intended to replace a demanding medical degree and at the same time the skills of immunologists and virologists are downplayed.

But we also often encounter the effect in other everyday situations: “So the referee is blind!” or “If I ruled this country…” Well, does that sound familiar?

More successful thanks to overestimation of oneself

Why do people overestimate their own achievements and skills? Social psychologists fundamentally see this as completely normal behavior: We all want to maintain a positive self-image. So we hate to admit that we have no idea. And: Those who overestimate themselves are more likely to be successful because they also tackle tasks that, based on a realistic assessment, they might not have tackled at all.

When these tasks succeed with the help of others or a little luck, you have the feeling that you are doing everything right. Even superficial knowledge and good self-presentation can lead to success. Basically a good thing – if it weren’t for the catch.

The negative sides of the effect

Because you overestimate yourself and ignore your own inabilities, you tend not to develop your skills. You remain ignorant, but still believe you are competent. Dunning and Kruger formulated this process as “stages of self-awareness.”

Levels of self-awareness according to Dunning & Kruger


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  • Incompetent people often overestimate their own abilities.
  • They are unable to recognize the extent of their incompetence.
  • Due to their ignorance, they do not develop their competence.
  • As a result, they underestimate the superior abilities of other people.

So what can you do about your own overestimation of yourself? First step: recognize that common sense is often not enough to understand complex problems. Second step: Practice self-reflection, i.e. become aware that we tend to overestimate ourselves.

In which situations does your environment become a specialist group? Write it to us in the comments!

100 Seconds of Knowledge, November 17, 2021, 6:54 a.m.

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