Cognitive Bias Personal Branding

What stops incompetent people from feeling embarrassed?

Let me introduce you to Karen and Paul. They’re confident but not exactly the best performers at work. They believe they’ve got superhero powers but nobody really appreciates that.

I bet you’ve met similar people during the course of your career. People who were incompetent and unable to recognize their incompetence. Now it’s high time you understood why people behave this way and why they are the ones to speak out the loudest.

Ignorance and confidence

Karen is a newly minted IT manager. She doesn’t have any technical background but that doesn’t stop her from speaking in front of software developers and giving them technical advice. She loves to share her opinion during various meetings. Of course she does it in order to gain acceptance.

“Yeah, I know Matt… but we should choose technology X for our project. I know that our competitors use it and from my perspective it looks perfect.”

However, her knowledge is based solely on a couple of articles she read on the Internet, and yet her voice means a lot in the organization. This is a dangerous combination of poor knowledge and power.

The best performer ever

Paul is a mid-level developer. This is his second job. He’s absolutely convinced he’s a great programmer. He doubled his salary by switching companies and moved from a junior to a mid-level position. Even though he is not the most experienced person on the team, he believes he’s one of the best. After work he arrogantly tells his friends:

“They should pay me a lot more. I can learn new stuff quickly and I know more than my older colleagues. They just don’t utilize my full potential!”

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Inaccurate self-perception described as the Dunning-Kruger effect [1] (also known as Mount Stupid or Smug Snake) is a cognitive bias which makes incompetent people unable to recognize their incompetence. What is more interesting, not only are they unable to see their incompetence but they are actually confident in thinking they’re very competent. The combination of poor awareness and low-level skills makes people overestimate their abilities.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

Professor Dunning also found an example of irony where knowledge and intelligence overlap:

“The knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task—and if one found also one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task.”

But where’s the problem?

In the article [2] Dunning points out that deficit in skills and self-perception is an overlapping problem. Incompetent people tend to not only overestimate their own skills but they also fail to recognize their own mistakes and the expertise of others. Another dangerous factor is that sometimes tiny scraps of knowledge people may have in a particular domain give them a feeling of understanding something deeply. It lets them feel wise even if they spend only 10 minutes on the issue.

Have you ever met anyone who after reading just one article started to share his opinions and argue with specialists as if he was the expert? What if that person was a manager, director, CEO or simply someone in a position of power? Little knowledge leads to overconfidence and that leads to poor decision-making. As the old saying goes:

“A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.”

Failing to recognize one’s own mistakes also leads to a reduced ability to self-improve. How can you improve your skills and the use power of constructive criticism if you cannot even see that you’re doing something wrong?

Who’s affected?

All of us are affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect. It doesn’t matter how experienced or proficient you are in one specific area. I bet there are still many subjects you’re not as competent in. No one can be an expert in all domains.

IT managers who possess leadership skills can mistakenly believe that those can jump over onto technical areas. Domain experts believe they are also great at leadership and other issues like those.

It’s not related to IQ

This phenomenon isn’t related to low IQ, so even if you achieved a high score on an IQ test you may still be susceptible to such an occurence. That’s why sometimes you can see people who speak openly about topics they shouldn’t even bring up. But that’s only because their brains stop them from feeling embarrassed.

In the next article I will explain to you how to overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect.


[1] Kruger, Justin & Dunning, David. (2000). Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 77. 1121-34. 10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121.

[2] Dunning, David. (2011). Chapter five – The Dunning–Kruger Effect: On Being Ignorant of One’s Own Ignorance. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 44. 10.1016/B978-0-12-385522-0.00005-6.