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Although it is unlikely Amarillo Slim ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, he was more than familiar with the concept. A Hall of Fame poker player, he liked to point out that “If you don’t know who the fool at the table is, it’s you.”

Psychology’s Dunning-Kruger Effect says the same thing.

People who are incompetent about something are unable to recognize their own incompetence. This cognitive bias causes people to reject information that does not support what they have already chosen to believe as true, especially when they’re wrong. And to make matters even worse, incompetent people are more likely to brag about how smart they are.

Psychologists have demonstrated that in order to assess expertise, you need a certain amount of it.

A favorite example of limited “expertise” is the bank robber who rubbed lemon juice on his face because he knew it would make him invisible to security cameras.

Amarillo Slim has some good company. 

In 500 BC, Confucius said “true wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.” Aristotle, one of history’s greatest intellectual figures, said in 300 BC that “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” More than 2,000 years later, Charles Darwin said “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge,” and philosopher Bertrand Russell said “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

People who don’t know how little they know can’t be bothered with self-doubt.

Falsely believing they have no need for them, the oblivious ignorant don’t take the trouble to go looking for facts because to them, fact-finding is unpleasantly effortful, annoying, and a waste of time. Experts call this active information avoidance.

What should people like you – who really are above-average – do?

  • Delay taking a position until you have gathered enough facts to make a well-informed decision. 
  • Challenge all assumptions, especially those you hold most dearly.
  • Actively seek contradictory information by looking in more and different places. 

One notable group that doesn’t recognize their own incompetence is marketers who do their own research.

Marketers who don’t know beans about research brag that they know all about it because they took an intro course in college. They not only lack the necessary scientific training, but they also don’t see that as a problem. Unaware of their limitations, these instant experts go to online DIY research sites, write their own questionnaires, and conduct their own analyses. The situation is made worse because nine out of ten executives who read instant experts’ reports don’t know enough to discern how woefully bad most of that DIY research is, and as a result, make important decisions based on junk science.

In a twist on the old lawyer quote, marketers who do their own research have fools for clients.

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