is a cognitive bias wherein relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate.
The effect is named after David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the department of psychology at Cornell University who published a paper in 1999 which described a series of experiments which they conducted which demonstrated the effect.
In an interview, Dunning described his understanding of the effect as follows:
Dunning: [I]f you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.
[Interviewer:] Why not?
Dunning: If you knew it, you’d say, “Wait a minute. The decision I just made does not make much sense. I had better go and get some independent advice.” But when you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is. In logical reasoning, in parenting, in management, problem solving, the skills you use to produce the right answer are exactly the same skills you use to evaluate the answer. And so we went on to see if this could possibly be true in many other areas. And to our astonishment, it was very, very true.
In the discussion section of the paper itself the authors write:
When can the incompetent be expected to overestimate themselves because of their lack of skill? Although our data do not speak to this issue directly, we believe the answer depends on the domain under consideration. Some domains, like those examined in this article, are those in which knowledge about the domain confers competence in the domain. Individuals with a great understanding of the rules of grammar or inferential logic, for example, are by definition skilled linguists and logicians. In such domains, lack of skill implies both the inability to perform competently as well as the inability to recognize competence, and thus are also the domains in which the incompetent are likely to be unaware of their lack of skill.
In other domains, however, competence is not wholly dependent on knowledge or wisdom, but depends on other factors, such as physical skill. One need not look far to find individuals with an impressive understanding of the strategies and techniques of basketball, for instance, yet who could not “dunk” to save their lives. (These people are called coaches.) Similarly, art appraisers make a living evaluating fine calligraphy, but know they do not possess the steady hand and patient nature necessary to produce the work themselves. In such domains, those in which knowledge about the domain does not necessarily translate into competence in the domain, one can become acutely–even painfully–aware of the limits of one’s ability. In golf, for instance, one can know all about the fine points of course management, club selection, and effective “swing thoughts,” but one’s incompetence will become sorely obvious when, after watching one’s more able partner drive the ball 250 yards down the fairway, one proceeds to hit one’s own ball 150 yards down the fairway, 50 yards to the right, and onto the hood of that 1993 Ford Taurus.
Interestingly, as far as I could see, neither the paper nor followup discussions comment on the implications of these findings on elections. If voters, who are inevitably uninformed about most issues government deals with, do not recognize the fact that they are uninformed then they are easy prey for manipulation. If voting is more akin to logical reasoning than to playing golf, then no rational decision making can be hoped for on the part of the voters – not even rational uninformed decisions. Not only will the voters be unable to make informed decisions, they would be unable to make rational uninformed decisions since they are uninformed about their uninformed state. Voters would vote believing they understand matters they don’t and thinking their judgement is based on facts and reasoning when in reality it is based on sloganeering and superficialities.