Simanaitis Says

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IT SOUNDS like a Grade-B sci-fi theme, but the Dunning-Kruger Effect is, alas, as timely as today’s headlines, rings true with my own intellectual life, and, what’s more, has an entertaining analysis by John Cleese, actor, comedian, and co-founder of Monty Python. This last, high praise indeed.

Briefly, psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger proposed that people of low ability suffer from illusionary superiority and those of high ability tend to believe they’re less competent than they actually are. Bluntly, really intelligent people realize how little they know. And stupid people are too stupid to realize they’re stupid.

At left, David Alan Dunning, Ph.D., psychology, Stanford, 1986, now professor of psychology at The University of Michigan; at right, Justin Kruger, Ph.D., social psychology, Cornell, 1999, now professor at New York University Stern School of Business. Image from

Professors Dunning and Kruger proposed this cognitive bias in their 1999 study “Unskilled and Unaware of it: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” The paper begins by discussing a criminal case of a guy caught robbing banks with his face covered with lemon juice. Thinking that lemon juice worked as an invisible ink, the fellow reasoned the juice would make his face invisible to surveillance cameras.

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Dunning and Kruger tested their hypotheses with Cornell undergraduates’ perceived self-assessments in logical reasoning, English grammar, and sense of humor. Across four different studies, for example, those who actually scored poorly, in the 12th percentile of these qualities, thought they ranked way up in the 62nd percentile.

Briefly, ignorance kept the low performers from recognizing incompetence. That is, this group’s misanalyses were internally based.

By contrast, the competent students tended to underestimate their own capabilities because they assumed those around them shared this competency. Unlike the dolts’ self-assessments, their misanalyses were externally based.

Though not so scientifically expressed, knowledge of these cognitive biases has been part of intellectual history. Confucius said, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” In As You Like It, Shakespeare’s Touchstone says, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell said, “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination are filled with doubt and indecision.” And Martin Luther King said, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

On a personal note, I confess to being regularly challenged on matters philosophical: As an example, learning French early on, I recall reading Jean Paul Sartre’s La Nausée, en français, naturalmente, in high school. I was utterly baffled. Later I tried reading it in English and the same thing occurred.

Existentialism isn’t my long suit, and I know it.

John Cleese sums up the Dunning-Kruger Effect in a succinct 58 seconds, with a marvelous reference to Hollywood and Fox News. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018


  1. Larry Crane
    January 7, 2018

    Cleese is NOT funny here. The organization he mentions is currently in complete control of our country. And it is no laughing matter.

  2. carmacarcounselor
    January 11, 2018

    On a like note from Mark Twain – with a twist: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

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