Steve Fenton

Harnessing the positive side of the Dunning Kruger Effect

I jotted an article recently about The Dreyfus Model and The Dunning Kruger Effect. In that article I spoke about how The Dreyfus Model is being mistakenly applied to the role of “programmer” rather than to each individual skill. This time round, I’m going to talk about harnessing the positive powers of The Dunning Kruger Effect.

If you have heard of it, The Dunning Kruger effect describes how unskilled people can grossly over-estimate their ability. You probably know a programmer who thinks he is the golden coder, but who is actually a total chump who has no idea what he’s doing. It is very easy to over-estimate your ability if you don’t really understand just how complex the subject is.

A good example of this is a first-line support engineer I knew. They believed they were an expert in SQL Server. I discovered that they were in fact very competent at writing queries, even very complex ones – but they didn’t know about indexes, normalisation, replication or a whole host of other subjects that a genuine expert would know. Because they didn’t even know these topics existed, they believed they knew all there was to know.

But this is the typical negative aspect of The Dunning Kruger effect – people running around thinking they are a paramedic because they watch Casualty and ER religiously.

But can there be a good side to all of this second-order incompetence?

Well, actually, yes! If you allow yourself to believe you are better than you are it will actually motivate you to become that person. If you believe you can solve a problem, you are more likely to solve it than an equally skilled person who doesn’t think they can solve it. You will persist and beat it – they will give up.

So you need to allow yourself to over-estimate your skills just enough to ensure you will grow your skills, but not so much you’ll be another chump who doesn’t know what they are doing, so allow yourself between 10-20% over-estimation and get out there and nail it.

Written by Steve Fenton on