How many people do you know who are highly skilled at what they do, yet doubt their
Contrast this with the hyper confident performers who audition for the X Factor, or appear
on The Apprentice, who aren't necessarily noted for displaying high levels of skill and you
have a rather confusing situation.
This is what's known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
It was named after two psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who conducted
experiments into this phenomenon at Cornell University in 1999.
The effect is a cognitive bias whereby the unskilled think they're highly skilled and the highly
skilled think they're unskilled.
How does that work?
Let's start with the unskilled.
Generally, the less someone knows about something, the less able they are to recognise
that there's a lot they don't know.
This can pretty much happen in any area, as was illustrated by the U.S. Senator who took a
snowball into the Senate to show how cold it was outside, definitively proving that the earth
isn't getting warmer.
As comedian Al Murray observed, during the World Cup, every man in the country believes
he has what it takes to coach England to World Cup glory.
Part of what makes someone highly skilled is being able to notice details and nuances that
are imperceptible to most other people.
As the singer who auditions for the X Factor lacks the ability to do this, when she's told she
doesn't actually sound that much like Beyoncé she reacts with total surprise and disbelief.
She hasn't developed the skill to hear the difference between her and Beyoncé, and the fact
she cannot hear the difference is what makes her so confident that she's highly skilled.
This illusion is further reinforced when you see someone who is highly skilled at doing
something, because they make it look easy.
There doesn't seem like there's much to it.
I'm always reminded how easy tennis is when I see Roger Federer winning a match without
breaking into a sweat.
The person who is highly skilled has practised and developed their skills over so many years
that it does happen more and more easily, without them needing to think about it
Because it is happening unconsciously, it gives them the impression they're not really doing
anything. They tend to take their high level of skill for granted.
Someone only becomes so skilled in the first place by noticing increasingly finer details that
they can continue improving upon in order to progress.
Because they're no longer appreciating the skills they're already demonstrating easily, and
have the ability to notice anything that doesn't meet their high standards, they are usually
most aware of things they're not happy with.
This is what gives them the impression that they're not that skilled.
Added to this is the fact that, when you start learning a skill, you seem to progress more
quickly in the earlier stages.
If you're learning another language, once you've learned your first word, learning a second
word doubles your vocabulary!
Someone who's been living aboard and speaking a foreign language fluently for ten years
might only discover the word for catalytic converter when they take their car in for a
Learning these new words develops their working knowledge of the language by only a very
small percentage, even though they are at a much higher level of skill than the beginner.
The more advanced you are at a particular skill, the more difficult it can be to notice your
continuing successful progress.
People also have a tendency to believe that others see them the way they see themselves.
As a result, highly skilled people who think they're unskilled often worry they will be 'Found
Apparently, when starting rehearsals for a new role, Dame Judi Dench always leaves her bag
and coat by the door in case she decides she's not up to it and wants to leave quickly.
I once mentioned the Dunning-Kruger Effect to an Olympic athlete I was working with who
replied, 'Yep. I think I'm a bit like the X Factor contestant really.'
I rest my case.
© Mike Cunningham 2015