You don’t know what you don’t know… until you know: The Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect on full display in Clueless (1995).

While doing research for my thesis, I came across an article entitled The Dunning-Kruger Effect: On Being Ignorant of One’s Own Ignorance.

With a title like that, I felt compelled — not just out of boredom — to set aside the battered pages of my research and read the article.

One month later, my friend texted me, describing someone as “clueless” and followed up with, “Dunning-Kruger Effect.”

Later, a LinkedIn connection introduced himself and his blog and had written a recent post on the same topic. His therapist’s perspective on the issue was an interesting one.

My first introduction to the topic of ignorance of one’s ignorance came by way of my own blog project called The Ardent Reader.

I read and reviewed a book called The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life by Steve Leveen. One of my key takeaways was as follows:

“[The book] begins with one simple lesson: the more ‘well-read’ you are, the more you will understand how little you actually know — and will be able to know — during the course of your life. Throughout the past year, I’ve been overwhelmingly disturbed by the fact that the less I knew, the smarter I thought I was. Hence the reason why everyone should make reading a priority.”

Got the old noggin joggin’ yet?

The less I knew, the smarter I thought I was.

The more I read, the more I realized how much I didn’t know.

Stay with me as I try to explain this, because it seems to go in circles.

Ignorance — the word in its strictest definition — is a lack of knowledge or information.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect deals with being ignorant of your own ignorance.

We don’t know what we don’t know, and we aren’t aware that we don’t know it.

As a result, we live our lives in a kind of bubble based on our limited awareness.

Some people recognize their own ignorance and seek to become better informed.

Other people never realize the extent of their own ignorance and go through life thinking they’re freaking great.

They’re overconfident.

This is the essence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

David Dunning and Justin Kruger collaborated to name and study this effect.

Here’s an excerpt from an article from Dunning (2011), published in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology:

“In essence, we proposed that when it came to judgments of performance based on knowledge, poor performers would face a double burden. First, deficits in their expertise would lead them to make many mistakes. Second, those exact same deficits would lead them to be unable to recognize when they were making mistakes and when other people were choosing more wisely. As a consequence, because poor performers were choosing the responses that they thought were the most reasonable, this would lead them to think they were doing quite well when they were doing anything but.”

Right now, you may be thinking of someone who could have made an excellent subject for this study.

Or maybe you’re thinking, “Oh my GOD. Could that be me?”

Sometimes we recognize Dunning-Kruger in others. We roll our eyes and whisper, “She’s in her own world.” Or, “He suffers from a lack of perspective.”

But can we recognize it in ourselves?

Good news: To a certain degree, we can, and we do.

But only through acquired knowledge and experience.

My personal prescription includes reading, writing, formal and informal education, doing grunt work (waiting tables, for example), and seeking other perspectives.

And if you really want to gain new perspectives, do something that makes you uncomfortable. (For me it’s being dirty and camping in a tent.)

Dunning wrote:

“We have shown that once poor performers are educated out of their incompetence, they show ample ability and willingness to recognize the errors of their past ways. Evidence already suggests people who are more educated (which we can take as a proxy for literacy) are better able to separate what they know from what they do not.”

Here’s a made up scenario:

You ask me what I think of lightning rods.

I am educated enough to know I know nothing about lightning rods. I say, “I don’t know anything about lightning rods.”

Now we have a starting point for a conversation, in which you tell me what you know about lightning rods.

And I might learn something.

But if I shrugged and said, “Of course!” you might simply change the topic — and perhaps even write me off as a smug jerk.

Life is full of paradoxes, and this is just another one:

When we recognize our lack of knowledge, we see where we need to fill in the gaps.

And then our education can begin.

“A person needs to have a healthy amount of doubt.” — Yisroel M. Picker, MSW

Esther Hofknecht Curtis, BSOL, MSM-HCA is an independent writer from Smyrna, Delaware. Follow her on Facebook at

Book nerd and freelance writer finding gold in ordinary places. Email me at Visit

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