ThinkingIs Donald Trump a living example of the Dunning Kruger effect?

Is Donald Trump a living example of the Dunning Kruger effect?

Did you see the David Brooks’ op-ed piece in the New York Times over the weekend? Brooks is a conservative columnist, but that didn’t mean he was going to hold back on Donald Trump. He is withering: “Donald Trump is epically unprepared to be president. He has no realistic policies, no advisers, no capacity to learn. His vast narcissism makes him a closed fortress. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and he’s uninterested in finding out.”

“He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know…”

Trump is an incredibly confident guy. Very sure of what he will be able to achieve as President. But it’s those words, “He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know”, that should ring alarm bells. I suspect Trump is a classic example of the Dunning Kruger effect unfolding before our eyes. And therefore a cautionary tale for all of us – because we are all prone to this cognitive bias.

What is the Dunning Kruger effect?

The Dunning Kruger effect was first outlined in a 1999 paper by two Cornell psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning. It basically states that the less competent you are at something, the more confident you will be in your abilities in that area. They say: “We argue that when people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden. Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realise it.” In other words, they are so incompetent that they lack the knowledge to even see it. Instead, they become falsely confident about their own abilities. Dunning and Kruger quote Darwin “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge”.

The two psychologists did a number of tests on people. They asked them to estimate their ability at a task (grammar and logic tests) and then to do the task. Here’s what they found:

dunning kruger graphs

Yep – that’s right. The people in the bottom two quartiles (based on actual performance in the tests) thought their ability was at a standard to put them in the second top quartile. The people who were competent enough to perform above average in the second top quartile judged themselves accurately. And the most competent people, the people in the top quartile (based on actual test results) actually underestimated themselves.

“ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge”

The findings are pretty clear. If you’re below average in a skill you’re likely to lack the competence to recognise it. If you’re expert in a skill you’re likely to have the competence to realise what you don’t know and actually downplay your ability.

Confidence would seem to be an indicator of incompetence. Humility would seem to be an indicator of competence. This, of course, brings us to Donald Trump.

Donald Trump sounds very confident

Trump is nothing if not confident. He will tell the crowds “we’ll have so much winning, you’ll get bored with winning“. Trump has no doubts about how effective his plans will be. But, whether it’s building a wall on the Mexican border, and getting the Mexicans to pay for it, or easily finding the millions of undocumented immigrants he plans to send home, or getting the military to obey illegal orders, Trump’s confidence would seem to be misplaced.

The man seems not to understand the constitutional system he is trying to be elected to. Nor the realities domestically and internationally he will face. And he seems to lack expertise to such an extent that he can’t even see the problem. Shades of Dunning Kruger to this observer at least.

A classic cognitive bias

Dunning Kruger is a classic cognitive bias that we are all prone to. Next time you’re feeling very confident about something, maybe just ask yourself if this confidence is soundly based. And next time you’re feeling unconfident and humble, ask yourself if this is actually coming from the insight that expertise affords.


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