Metacognition and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

I came across the Dunning-Kruger Effect recently. I got quite excited about it because it explains how some of those difficult conversations come about that you have with people who confidently state their views without anything resembling knowledge, experience or facts.

It also explains how it sometimes can be difficult to deal with clients who don’t understand the importance of good writing and presentation.

What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

Dunning and Kruger are psychologists who while at Cornell University (New York) undertook a series of studies to test the difference between people’s assessment of their own ability and their true ability. Their 1999 journal paper (Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments) has become widely read—you might even say it has gone viral—because it was a well-written and witty paper which explained scientifically why ignorant people think they are clever:

We argue that when people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.

Dunning and Kruger’s research sought to test just how much people overestimate their own ability. Understanding their research findings relies on understanding metacognition and how it is affects our behaviour. They found two quite important things.

People who are competent at certain tasks (e.g. grammar, mathematics, social interaction) overestimate others’ skill levels at those tasks and therefore underestimate their own ability relative to others.

More importantly, and as above, the researchers found that incompetent people will overestimate their own skill levels because they “lack the metacognition” to realise their error. In other words, they were too incompetent to recognise their own incompetence (they didn’t know what they didn’t know). Therefore the Dunning-Kruger Effect is, as another writer puts it:

a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority. … This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.

What is metacognition?

So what is metacognition? In simple terms it is being aware and in control of your own mental processes (very simplistically how you think about your thinking). It is an important concept in the psychology of education. Metacognition is higher order thinking; it is how an individual understands their own thinking processes as they learn. It includes activities such as how you plan to learn a task, how you monitor your understanding, and how you measure your success.

Metacognition word history

Metacognition is a modern concept first developed in the late 1970s. The word is therefore a modern construct:

meta- is a prefix meaning beyond or higher, often added to a scientific discipline to indicate how it looks at itself at an abstract level; some examples are metaphilosophy, metalinguistics (metadata is another slightly different usage which means data about data);

cognition—meaning your ability to comprehend; it comes directly from Latin cognitio.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect in good writing

The Dunning-Kruger Effect explains why it is sometimes much easier to deal with clients that recognise that they don’t understand writing and grammar than those that think they do. The introduction to their paper hits the nail on the head:

… For example, consider the ability to write grammatical English. The skills that enable one to construct a grammatical sentence are the same skills necessary to recognize a grammatical sentence, and thus are the same skills necessary to determine if a grammatical mistake has been made. In short, the same knowledge that underlies the ability to produce correct judgment is also the knowledge that underlies the ability to recognize correct judgment. To lack the former is to be deficient in the latter.

Some people have the metacognition to assess their own abilities at grammar and understand they need help (they recognise that their level of competency is limited) whereas other lacking metacognition (they don’t recognise that their competency is limited) assume they are proficient when they are not. Dunning and Kruger also suggest that the solution to bad judgement in an area is to become competent in that area—wise advice.