The Dunning-Kruger Effect

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge.”

Charles Darwin

While on a drive to a recent conference, I was listening to podcasts on iTunes. One in particular caught my attention. It was discussing the Dunning-Kruger effect. As I was listening to the podcast, I kept on picturing different examples over my career where I saw this in action.

The Dunning-Krueger effect was proposed in 1999 by two researchers at Cornell University – David Dunning and Justin Kruger. Dunning and Kruger were professors in the department of psychology at Cornell. Their experiment was inspired by the story of McArthur Wheeler, a man who robbed two banks in Pittsburgh in 1995 after covering his face with lemon juice. Wheeler believed that since lemon juice can be used as invisible ink, it would prevent his face from being recognizable on security camera footage. Apparently Wheeler was too stupid to know how stupid he was. After he was arrested later that evening, he still didn’t understand how police had been able to catch him. He really believed that the lemon juice “invisibility mask” would work.

Dunning and Krueger performed a series of experiments on students in their psychology courses to try to understand how they perceived their own knowledge and performance. The students were given tests to assess their logical reasoning skills, grammatical skills and humor. After the students received their test scores, they were asked to estimate their ranking against the other students in their class. What Dunning and Krueger found out is that the poorest performing students tended to overestimate how well they did! They were in the 15% percentile and lower, but tended to rank themselves in the 50% percentile or higher! Those in the middle tended to rank themselves appropriately. Ironically, those that did the very best in the test tended to rank themselves lower than their actual performance – they didn’t realize how much more knowledgeable they were compared to their peers.

Can you observe the Dunning-Krueger effect in your workplace? A good portion of workers tend to fall in the middle ground. They are as good as their peers in knowledge and talent, and don’t underestimate or overestimate their abilities. They learn from others and grow in their knowledge and ability. Some of them advance to increasing levels of responsibility, continuing to learn along the way. They never have an “I’m God’s greatest gift to aviation maintenance” mentality. Instead, they are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and work towards improving themselves.

Then you have those at the bottom percentile – the “less talented” let’s say. Do you know some of them? They aren’t very good at their jobs, but tend to brag about how much better they are than John Doe and Joe Mechanic. They continually put down others and feel that they can do better than them. They probably feel that their superiors as ignorant. The problem with these workers is the mentality they have. If someone corrects them or offers advice on doing a better job, they see themselves as great, so that advice isn’t accepted. Instead, they think the person offering the advice has the problem.

There’s a problem with the Dunning-Krueger effect – you can look around and observe others and see where they fit in for the most part. But you aren’t aware of where you sit. Are you in the lower percentile, going through life thinking you are better than you actually are? Are you average? Or are you better than most of your peers but just don’t know it?

Think about that!

Thanks for reading, and we appreciate your feedback.


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