Why We Fail to Recognize Our Own Incompetence {Bias Day 3}
Dunning-Kruger Effect

What is the Competency Bias (also known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect)?

This cognitive bias is when we unconsciously overestimate our abilities or knowledge (we’re all above average drivers, right?).

Basically, we don’t know enough to realize how little we know.

At the same time, people who ARE an expert in an area might still think others know more than they do, when they don’t. (These people might have the Impostor Syndrome, the bias of doubting your legitimate accomplishments, thus feeling like an impostor.)

Bottom line: we’re not very competent at determining our own competence.

Competency Bias

Here’s an example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect (Competency Bias).

They say the first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re in the Dunning-Kruger club.

We’re all familiar with someone who brags at the dinner table about their knowledge on a topic, but they are unaware of how little they know.

For example, if you’re white, and you claim to understand exactly how it feels to be Black in America, you’re probably a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.

Another example: When surveyed about their knowledge of social policies, people in both political parties were confident in their expertise of a complex issue even though they held only a simple understanding.

And here’s a humorous example.

Coronavirus expert

Why do we think we know more than we do?

We naturally need confidence. It allows us us to take action. It’s the overconfidence that hurts us.

But it’s hard to know we’re not performing well if we don’t know the correct measure of “well.” Ironically, those mostly likely to overestimate their abilities are often the ones with the least skills.

Also, once we know something in one area, we often assume incorrectly that the knowledge transfers equally to other areas. Or if we’ve learned a little, we assume we know a lot.

As our parents told us, “A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.”

Culture also plays a factor (certain nationalities are more prone to this competency bias than others). We’re uncomfortable saying, “I don’t know” so our brain tells us actually we DO know. It creates a shortcut that doesn’t exist so we can make sense of the matter.

Why does incompetence carry a “double curse”?

1. Incompetence causes us to reach bad conclusions, make mistakes, take unnecessary risks, and undervalue the genuine experts.

2. But secondly, we’re also cursed by not realizing it’s our own incompetence that’s causing our problems. We don’t learn from our mistakes.

Dunning-Kruger Effect dev.to

How can I prevent having this Competency Bias?

  • Work on your meta-cognition skills.
    Think about your own thinking. Realize your ignorance is invisible to you until you seek to become aware of it.
  • Keep learning more.
    The more you learn, the more you’ll realize there is to learn.
  • Get honest feedback.
    Listen to other people about your abilities. Don’t rely on your own opinions about yourself.
  • Be intellectually humble.
    Let down your defenses. Can you take constructive criticism? Do you listen to others? What are you basing your confidence on?

(And maybe read this article about contradictions about our understanding of the Dunning Kruger effect.)

How did Jesus handle the competency bias in others?

Here’s how Brian McLaren describes it in his book, Why Don’t They Get It?

Jesus praised child-likeness and helped people learn that they have a lot to learn . . . building their confidence that they can enjoy life beyond their current biases.

He praised people for wise answers and ‘caught them doing good,’ and boldly confronted ‘blind guides’ and ‘hypocrites’ who were unaware of their ignorance.”

In one of Jesus’s last conversations with his disciples before the crucifixion, he told them they would do greater works than he had done (don’t underestimate your power) (John 14:12).

Yet he also said they didn’t know everything (don’t overestimate your knowledge); wait on the Holy Spirit to teach them (John 14:26).

Jesus’s advice is good for us today, too: 

  • Don’t underestimate God’s ability to work through you.
  • And don’t overestimate how much you think you know.

As with the other biases, we’re all prone to the competency bias. How do you become aware you don’t know as much as you think you do? Share in the comments.

You are on Day 3 of the series, of “How to Uncover Hidden Biases.”

Uncover Hidden Biases

Previous: Comfort Bias {Bias Day 2}
“I Don’t Want to Leave My Comfort Zone”

Next: Negativity Bias {Bias Day 4}
“How to Stop Being So Negative”

19 thoughts on “Why We Fail to Recognize Our Own Incompetence {Bias Day 3}
Dunning-Kruger Effect

  1. Martha Jane Orlando

    It’s taken me many years to get there, but now I freely admit to not knowing/not understanding so much in life. And that’s okay. We should never stop learning and growing, keeping our minds open for new and helpful information.
    Blessings, Lisa!

  2. Theresa Boedeker

    This reminded me of teenagers. Or one specifically, that told me he was already a good driver after only a few lessons. My tight grip on the door handle told me otherwise. And yes, I have been there too. Thinking I knew everything. Someone recently complimented me on my wisdom in an area, and I was taken aback. Me, I thought. I don’t know much about that topic. Then I started thinking about it and I had 30 years experience. So I goes I should know something. Love the point about how Jesus treated people with competency bias.

  3. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    Yes, my friend, I know a lot
    and admit this to be true,
    that in my lifetime I forgot
    more than most folk ever knew
    ’bout calculus and classic Greek,
    ’bout how to roast a luau pig,
    ’bout Jersey Devil’s eerie shriek,
    ’bout how to drive a Kenworth rig,
    and in this knowledge I’m sincere
    in my gracious humility
    and I thus must make it clear,
    the height of my ability,
    for I once thought I could be wrong,
    but I’d been right, all along.

  4. Joanne Viola

    Lisa, such a packed post that gives us much to think about. I am finding that the older I get, I realize how little I know and how much I yet need to grow. Saying “I don’t know” has been very freeing in many ways.

  5. Laurie

    Yikes! I definitely see myself in this competency bias. In fact, I just wrote a post about it (published later this month). I once got Bill and I lost when we were on a trail run when I overestimated my navigational abilities.

    Your advice – not to underestimate God or overestimate our own abilities. Is perfect!

  6. Lisa Blair

    A very insightful article. Thanks Lisa! I especially appreciated, “Work on your meta-cognition skills. Think about your own thinking. Realize your ignorance is invisible to you until you seek to become aware of it.”

  7. Doreen Eager

    I enjoyed the article. Think about what you are thinking about 😉 Pointing out that Jesus calls us to have child-likeness in our life, in order to have the faith that grows us closer to Him, and to be open to learning. I am looking to learn, through constructive criticism, how to improve my writing skills.

  8. Lynn

    Stay curious! That’s what helps me (I think) with competency bias! And remembering I only know as much as I know from the information I have today. In the next hour that may change! Sometimes this thinking can get me in trouble as then I don’t anchor onto anything, though. This is when I’m grateful for solid teachings such as those by Jesus you shared. Great article, Lisa. Thank you.

  9. Lois Flowers

    This is fascinating, Lisa. In a way, it reminded me of those contestants on American Idol who used to think they were so amazing but in reality could barely carry a tune in a bucket. Your two final points (Jesus’ advice for us today) will stick with me for sure.

  10. Sarah

    Admittedly the differing cultures I’ve encountered living overseas drive me batty in the category of ‘incapacity to say ‘I don’t know’’
    It’s a classic. And it has made me embrace the phrase! I appreciate the series!! Thank you

  11. ~ linda

    OH, my! I am so grateful for reading the way Jesus spoke to us about competency for He, and only He, truly knows our abilities. This one hurt though. I am feeling rather incompetent right now. (I do like the humored photo a lot! So true!!)

  12. Linda Stoll

    There’s so much here to sit with, Lisa.

    But these words are clear enough for even a little one to understand –
    ‘Jesus’s advice is good for us today, too:
    Don’t underestimate God’s ability to work through you.
    And don’t overestimate how much you think you know.’


  13. Jean Wise

    Basically, we don’t know enough to realize how little we know. – ouch! so true yet we sure act like we know! again great thoughts and insight!

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