The rise of President Donald Trump has brought with it a rise in Americans’ awareness of a psychological phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect — when a person’s incompetence breeds boastful hubris rather than humility.
It’s not a disease, syndrome or mental illness; it is present in everybody to some extent, and it’s been around as long as human cognition, though only recently has it been studied and documented in social psychology.
In their 1999 paper, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, David Dunning and Justin Kruger put data to what has been known by philosophers since Socrates, who supposedly said something along the lines of “the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.” Charles Darwin followed that up in 1871 with “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
Put simply, incompetent people think they know more than they really do, and they tend to be more boastful about it.
If this sounds familiar, it should: Donald Trump is the quintessential example of the Dunning-Kruger effect and has been for decades.
Even though President Trump’s statements are rife with errors, falsehoods or inaccuracies, he expresses great confidence in his aptitude. He says he does not read extensively because he solves problems “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had.” He has said in interviews he doesn’t read lengthy reports because “I already know exactly what it is.”
He has “the best words” and cites his “high levels of intelligence” in rejecting the scientific consensus on climate change. Decades ago, he said he could end the Cold War: “It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles,” Trump told The Washington Post’s Lois Romano over dinner in 1984. “I think I know most of it anyway.”
And yet Trump's actual knowledge bank is but a fraction of what he claims.
Dunning and Kruger describe perfectly what is happening here, and the results of their study have been confirmed multiple times.
To test Darwin’s theory, the researchers quizzed people on several topics, such as grammar, logical reasoning and humor. After each test, they asked the participants how they thought they did. Specifically, participants were asked how many of the other quiz-takers they beat.
Dunning was shocked by the results, even though it confirmed his hypothesis. Time after time, no matter the subject, the people who did poorly on the tests ranked their competence much higher. On average, test takers who scored as low as the 10th percentile ranked themselves near the 70th percentile. Those least likely to know what they were talking about believed they knew as much as the experts.
Dunning and Kruger’s results have been replicated in at least a dozen different domains: math skills, wine tasting, chess, medical knowledge among surgeons and firearm safety among hunters.
While it might feel good to understand the psychological phenomenon, there is an unfortunate catch: people like Trump are highly unlikely to realize their deficits.
What happens when the incompetent are unwilling to admit they have shortcomings? Are they so confident in their own perceived knowledge that they will reject the very idea of improvement? Not surprisingly (though no less concerning), Dunning’s follow-up research shows the poorest performers are also the least likely to accept criticism or show interest in self improvement.