Ignorance and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

by | Jan 1, 2018


Ignorance is merely the lack of knowledge or information. Ignorance can be thought of in two broad categories.  The first is primary ignorance which is when we are ignorant but do not recognize that we are ignorant.  Secondary ignorance is when we are ignorant but we know that we do not know.

Of the two types of ignorance, primary ignorance is the more insidious. Decisions made where we think we know, but we do not, are often bad decisions. With respect to knowledge an interesting paradox exists.  If we know nothing about a subject, we typically recognize we do not know, but if we know a bit about a subject it is human nature to overestimate our knowledge and slip into primary ignorance. The adage “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is often true as a little knowledge often leads to overconfidence.

In many areas of our lives we are secondarily ignorant and have no issues recognizing that we do not know. For instance, I know that I don’t know how to speak Russian, I don’t know how to fly a plane and I no longer can do calculus (to be honest I could never really do calculus).  On the other hand, after a bit of research on the world wide web I might think I can diagnose myself, understand whether trade deficits are harmful to our economy, or have an opinion on whether a recent court case was well decided – all things probably too complex for me to have enough knowledge without a great deal of research as well as reliance on expert opinion (such as seeing a doctor).

A great example from the past 7-8 years was the misguided fear (in retrospect) of high inflation given the Fed’s quantitative easing actions. Many people were very critical of what the Fed was doing. Yet, often these people who thought the Fed had no idea what they were doing themselves knew almost nothing about monetary policy and inflation – they almost never knew about monetary velocity, the Taylor Rule, and the intricacies of demand-pull vs. cost push inflation. Failure to recognize the expertise of the Federal Reserve as compared to our own ignorance led to many very poor investment decisions due to misguided fears of high inflation.

This concept of not knowing what we don’t know is known as the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” in psychology.  It states that the least competent people often believe they are the most competent because “they lack the very expertise needed to recognize how badly they’re doing.

David Dunning from an article We are All Confident Idiots: “Incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge. An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge. This clutter is an unfortunate by-product of one of our greatest strengths as a species. We are unbridled pattern recognizers and profligate theorizers. Often, our theories are good enough to get us through the day, or at least to an age when we can procreate. But our genius for creative storytelling, combined with our inability to detect our own ignorance, can sometimes lead to situations that are embarrassing, unfortunate, or downright dangerous.” Chart of results showing the Dunning-Kruger effect:


How to avoid The Dunning-Kruger Effect:

  1. Before having an opinion ask yourself whether you are an expert in the area. If not, have you done extensive reading and research?
  2. Ask yourself – what do the experts say? Should you rely on expert opinion? If not, why not? Are my opinions formed by information from an expert or from a non-expert pundit?
  3. We are all swayed by stories and direct life experiences. Ask yourself whether these small samples are representative of the the larger experience. (For instance, I read recently of a person who had recently turned 100 who claimed the key to their longevity was eating bacon everyday – it’s key not to read too much into a sample size of one.
  4. Don’t be afraid to say “I do not know.”
  5. Part of the cause of the Dunning-Kruger effect is confirmation bias. Seek out the other side before having an opinion.
  6. Beware of “Dr. Google” with respect to health issues. The internet can provide a great deal of information about health issues, but it does not make one instantly an expert.
  7. Finally – it is a painful thing to admit, but none of us are immune to this phenomenon. It’s part of being human.

Interesting question I am asking myself right now: Do I know enough about this topic to be writing/publishing an IFOD about it?


  1. Happy 2015!, 2016, 2017, 2018!
    Great article! Spoken from a functioning Tertiary Idiot….which means I know nobody knows how wrong I am most of the time, mostly because they don’t care what I think anyway…
    Keep up the great work, John.

  2. All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure. Mark Twain

  3. That was an awesome article to begin the new year with.

  4. Best IFOD of 2018! That is for sure!


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