Skip to main content

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance

The funny thing about ignorant people is that they so often conduct themselves as if they were experts.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

The funny thing about ignorant people is that they so often conduct themselves as if they were experts. In 1999, the psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger published a paper documenting how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—their own incompetence, and so they wildly overestimate their mastery of everything from personal finance, to firearm safety, to chess. This phenomenon came to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Now, in a new article for Pacific Standard, Dunning himself reveals an even deeper set of truths about the ignorant mind, why it cannot recognize the limits of its knowledge, and where its inappropriate confidence comes from. The definitive piece on why it feels so right to be wrong.

David Dunning's Pacific Standard feature will be made available to subscribers—in print or digital formats—soon, and will be posted online in full on Monday, October 27. Until then, an excerpt:

What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.

This isn’t just an armchair theory. A whole battery of studies conducted by myself and others have confirmed that people who don’t know much about a given set of cognitive, technical, or social skills tend to grossly overestimate their prowess and performance, whether it’s grammar, emotional intelligence, logical reasoning, firearm care and safety, debating, or financial knowledge. College students who hand in exams that will earn them Ds and Fs tend to think their efforts will be worthy of far higher grades; low-performing chess players, bridge players, and medical students, and elderly people applying for a renewed driver’s license, similarly overestimate their competence by a long shot.

Occasionally, one can even see this tendency at work in the broad movements of history. Among its many causes, the 2008 financial meltdown was precipitated by the collapse of an epic housing bubble stoked by the machinations of financiers and the ignorance of consumers. And recent research suggests that many Americans’ financial ignorance is of the inappropriately confident variety. In 2012, the National Financial Capability Study, conducted by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (with the U.S. Treasury), asked roughly 25,000 respondents to rate their own financial knowledge, and then went on to measure their actual financial literacy.

The roughly 800 respondents who said they had filed bankruptcy within the previous two years performed fairly dismally on the test—in the 37th percentile, on average. But they rated their overall financial knowledge more, not less, positively than other respondents did. The difference was slight, but it was beyond a statistical doubt: 23 percent of the recently bankrupted respondents gave themselves the highest possible self-rating; among the rest, only 13 percent did so. Why the self-confidence? Like Jimmy Kimmel’s victims, bankrupted respondents were particularly allergic to saying “I don’t know.” Pointedly, when getting a question wrong, they were 67 percent more likely to endorse a falsehood than their peers were. Thus, with a head full of “knowledge,” they considered their financial literacy to be just fine.

To read this story in print, subscribe to our bimonthly magazine, which will be on newsstands later this week. Or you can get our November/December issue instantly on any of your digital devices.

For more on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our free email newsletters and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Google Play (Android) and Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8).