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

Nick IngramThinking13 Comments

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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13 Comments on “Is Donald Trump a living example of the Dunning Kruger effect?”

  1. Thanks for this great insight. It precedes a terrific piece on This American Life:
    “In Defense of Ignorance,” Act 2, where Dunning is interviewed and explains his research and updates on the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

  2. I too found this after hearing the TAL show and was just looking for more information about it. It’s hard to not see trump as an example of many different psychological conditions. In fact, I think that it might be this more than anything that has all of us (even the ones who don’t think it’s the case) fascinated by the spectacle.

    Regarding the Dunning Krueger effect, I think it’s worth noting that all groups in the data shown above believe that they’ve performed similarly. Dunning seemed to think that this was because the highest quartile was either modest or over estimating of others’ abilities, while the lowest two quartile a were simply suffering from the using the same poor analytical skills in assessing themselves as they did in solving text questions. How much is this just hand waving to explain why we feel like the children of lake woebegone, all of us: above average?

    1. “Where all the men are strong and all the women are good looking”. :) There may be some hand-waving. But, I like the way Dunning put it in the interview. If I am not competent in a field, I may well lack the competence to even recognise that – especially where the task is not giving immediate feedback. I can be incompetent in swimming, and know it immediately as I sink to the bottom of the pool. But in a test of logic (such as Dunning and Kruger did) may be there isn’t the immediate sinking feeling to signal my lack of competence.

  3. While I agree with this in general, I have to ask, how do you tell a Trump who has no clue how he would actually accomplish anything, from a Mussolini or Hitler or Stalin, who actually did accomplish things by similar means?

  4. Great article
    I truly believe that a huge dollop of humility and self doubt are essential qualifications to just about any top job, and they are hugely undervalued personal qualities at this time.

  5. Thanks Nick for this enlightening piece. I have been battling for ages to find a term or theory that would define such kind of people for me. So much so that i wondered if someone had ever taken the trouble to do a study in it. It took a Trump to help me find that answer & in your piece you answered me. From now on, i can at least say that such people have a Dunning Kruger effect. Nice job.

  6. I have come across your very interesting article only today, March 30, 2017, while pursuing my own thoughts about Dunning-Kruger and Trump. So, already one year ago you pointed out the problems the U.S. and the world would have with a President Trump. “Shades of Dunning Kruger to this observer at least” is putting it very mildly, as we can now see. I am waiting for the child to remark that the emperor has no clothes on….

  7. You beat David Brooks to this. Note his recent column citing DT as the all time world champion of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Brooks said dealing with him is like dealing with a seven-year-old child. Sad but accurate.

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