At Roundpeg, we recently went through a flurry of interviews to find our new Digital Marketing Specialist. This was my first time being the interviewer instead of the interviewee and it gave me an interesting glimpse into the other side. Instead of being judged, I was the one judging, evaluating and critiquing the skills of a potential coworker to see if they would fit in the open position.

Around the same time, our part-time worker mentioned something unrelated to the interviews he had learned in class, a phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect. As he explained what it was, it made me think, how can we ever really know what skills and the level of skill these candidates possess? We ask about previous work and training, but we won’t really know until they’re in the position. We depend heavily on the face-to-face interview to see how confident a candidate is in their skills. After all, wouldn’t it make sense to hire someone who seemed very confident and capable?

Not exactly…

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

In 1999, at Cornell University, researcher David Dunning and his graduate student, Justin Kruger, published a paper discussing the phenomenon that suggests, among other things, that people who are low in competence many times don’t recognize their incompetence. In fact, they often overestimate how skilled they are, relative to others.

For example, someone who has used Photoshop minimally or for small photo edits may be unrealistically confident that they know the ins and outs of Photoshop because they aren’t aware of how complex Photoshop is. Because the person is generally unaware of the intricacies of Photoshop, they simply “don’t know what they don’t know.” They struggle to recognize the limits of their own knowledge. Unless the novice user receives training, he will never be aware of just how unskilled he is.

On the other side of the spectrum, people who are very skilled will sometimes underestimate just how skilled they are. Skilled workers may think that tasks that are simple for them are also simple for others. When rating their ability, they may be inclined to modestly evaluate their skill level, mostly because they recognize how much they don’t know.

You and I aren’t off the hook either. It’s easy to criticize someone else’s inflated sense of competency and ignore our own. But we all fall under this effect because we all have gaps and limits in our knowledge.

Avoiding the D-K Effect in Business

How do we know the competent from the incompetent when it comes to candidates? Taking into account what we’ve learned about the Dunning-Kruger effect, it’s probably a good idea to approach an extremely confident job candidate with some skepticism about their skill base. A seemingly “expert” candidate may in fact struggle markedly to see the gaps and deficiencies in his or her skill set.

Should a less competent candidate get hired for a position, aspects of the Dunning-Kruger effect may be apparent in the office. An unskilled worker may be more likely to trumpet their worth than the skilled worker, and they may be inclined to believe that they are more deserving of recognition and even promotions than other staff.

We hold the belief that education is the solution to ignorance—that’s why we place such a value on schooling. But we also subtly place a value on knowing, on the ability to take what we’ve learned from one situation and apply it to another, even if the comparison isn’t warranted. People are motivated to confirm their beliefs and suspicions, even when those hunches don’t correspond to reality.

The good news is that with training, the confident unskilled worker can eventually see and understand their incompetency. For those already in the workplace faced with a decision where skills come into play, Dunning suggests appointing a “devil’s advocate”, whose role is to give rational critique and counterpoints to opinions. This method may make some uncomfortable, but your team is more likely to come to a solid decision this way.

Want a more in-depth look? You can read the original 1999 study by Justin Kruger and David Dunning here. You can also check out a 2014 article by David Dunning on the topic in Pacific Standard.


Update 2016.  We are about to start interviewing for another marketing specialist at Roundpeg.  It was a good time to reread the article and think about the characteristics we want to see in our next employee.