The Dunning-Kruger Effect and Impostor Syndrome: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Have you ever felt like you are not good enough at what you do, even though you have achieved success and recognition in your field?

Or maybe you’ve been overconfident in your abilities, even though you actually lack the knowledge of a skill. Chances are, you know enough people who overestimate their knowledge or underestimate their abilities.

I am thinking of my experiences in Muay Thai and how much more confident I’ve been when I just started out vs. how timid I became after 4 years of training.

It’s interesting, how the experts in a field are less cooky than the random person who has read two articles in a respective field and things they now got it all together.

Two psychological phenomena, known as the Dunning-Kruger effect and impostor syndrome are what we call these two errors in our perception.

The Dunning-Kruger effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a type of cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their knowledge or ability, particularly in areas with which they have little to no experience. It is named after psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who first described it in a 1999 study.

They found that people who scored low on tests of grammar, humour, and logic also tended to rate themselves as above average in these domains, while people who scored high tended to underestimate their performance.

The researchers explained that this happens because low-ability people do not possess the skills needed to recognise their own incompetence, while high-ability people tend to assume that others are as competent as they are.

The Other Side of the Coin: Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome is a term coined by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. It describes the feeling of being a fraud or a phony, despite having evidence of one’s achievements and abilities.

People who suffer from impostor syndrome often attribute their success to luck, external factors, or deception, rather than their own skills and efforts. They also fear being exposed as unqualified or incompetent by others. Impostor syndrome can affect anyone, regardless of their level of expertise or experience, but it is more common among women, minorities, and high achievers.

The consequences, and how to reduce our errors in thinking

Both the Dunning-Kruger effect and impostor syndrome can have negative consequences for one’s personal and professional life.

People who overestimate their abilities may make poor decisions, take unnecessary risks, or fail to learn from their mistakes. They may also alienate others with their arrogance or ignorance.

People who underestimate their abilities may suffer from low self-esteem, anxiety, or depression. They may also miss out on opportunities, avoid challenges, or sabotage their own success.

How can we overcome these cognitive distortions and have a more realistic and balanced view of ourselves? Here are some possible strategies:

  • Seek feedback from others. Asking for constructive criticism from people who are knowledgeable and trustworthy can help us identify our strengths and weaknesses, as well as correct any misconceptions we may have about our performance. Feedback can also help us appreciate our achievements and recognise our areas for improvement.
  • Compare yourself to yourself. Rather than measuring yourself against others, focus on your own goals and progress. Celebrate your accomplishments and learn from your failures. Recognise that everyone has different skills, experiences, and backgrounds and that there is always room for growth and development.
  • Embrace uncertainty and challenge. Instead of avoiding situations that make us feel insecure or incompetent, seek them out as opportunities to learn and improve. Adopt a growth mindset that views ability as something that can be enhanced through effort and practice, rather than something that is fixed and innate. Be curious and open-minded about new information and perspectives.
  • Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge your feelings of doubt or inadequacy without judging yourself harshly. Remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes and has limitations and that you are not alone in feeling this way. Practice self-compassion and gratitude for what you have and what you can do.

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