I remember the time I first learned about algebraic equations. Feeling confident that I would definitely be able to answer all the algebra questions on the test correctly, I’d skim through the algebra practice questions and call it a day. But when I got my grades back, I realized I probably should have studied a little more.

Another time, I participated in an English essay writing competition and was later told by my teacher that I was one of the prize winners. Anticipating a smile on my face, my teacher was shocked and puzzled when I asked her if I was chosen by mistake. With a blank look, she went through the essay again and assured me that my work did deserve a prize. 

These two memories immediately stood out to me when I found out recently that there is a name to describe each of these scenarios: The Dunning-Kruger effect and imposter syndrome. 

The Dunning-Kruger Effect and Imposter Syndrome both describe mismatches between what we know and what we think we know. (Source)

Basically, the Dunning-Kruger effect explains how the less someone knows about the topic, the more confident (and sometimes arrogant) they are about their understanding of it. Imposter syndrome describes the opposite: it manifests when people who are experts on a topic do not feel confident in their understanding and show modesty. While it is common for us to experience such feelings, they’re signs that we are often unable to accurately assess our own competence. 

The Dunning Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect began with the lemon juice story, which brings us back to 1995 in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. A man named McArthur Wheeler decided to rob two banks in broad daylight with his face clearly visible. Needless to say, he was arrested quickly after the robbery despite having put on, what he thought, was a perfect disguise—he had smeared lemon juice on his face. Like the emperor and his new clothes, Wheeler was convinced that lemon juice would work like an invisible ink and make him unrecognizable on cameras. This man with nerves of steel piqued the interests of two social psychologists—David Dunning and Justin Kruger. They decided to study the case to find out how someone so ignorant could have so much confidence. 

They began by asking a group of students to evaluate themselves in three aspects: humor, logical reasoning, and grammar. Then, they compared the results with their actual abilities concluded that the most competent people tend to underestimate their abilities whereas the least competent people tend to overestimate their abilities. 

According to Dunning and Kruger, the least competent people usually do not have enough knowledge to know that they are incompetent and to recognize competency in others. In other words, they don’t know what they don’t know. 

Here’s a hypothetical example: Jack is a new driver who has just learned how to drive a car. While the basics he learned in driver’s ed enabled him to drive on the city road, it does not prove his competency to drive on the more challenging roads like the “road of death” in Bolivia. Under the influence of the Dunning-Kruger effect, Jack is confident that he is skillful enough to drive on that road safely. He is, however, unaware that besides knowing how to steer the wheel, he should also be skillful in handling the car under different conditions, like when faced with a narrow, steep, or slippery road. Being a new driver, he does not have the experience yet. 

So how does knowing about the Dunning-Kruger effect benefit us? Let’s take a look at one of the major issues we’re facing in this pandemic—vaccine hesitancy. When vaccination entered the news, debates among pro-vaxxers and anti-vaxxers emerged. A social scientist has associated the Dunning-Kruger effects with endorsements of anti-vax attitudes towards policy. Some anti-vaxxers believe that vaccines cause autism and that vaccines are just a money-making scheme for the pharmaceutical industry. You may also heard people refer to COVID-19 as “just another flu.” These claims are hinting at the presence of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which means there’s only one solution: building awareness by spreading knowledge on the science behind COVID-19, autism, and the COVID-19 vaccines themselves. Want proof that this works? Here is an example of one anti-vaxxer who converted into a pro-vaxxer after she learned more about vaccines. 

The Dunning-Kruger effect, illustrated © Kenneth Lim. (Source)
Imposter Syndrome

The flip side of the Dunning-Kruger effect is the imposter syndrome, which we can also see in a real-life example. Unlike Wheeler and his excessive confidence, a man we’ll call Tobin Holmes was a talented young man with low self-esteem. He was the perfect example of a competent man whose excessive modesty robbed him of his opportunities for career advancement. Constantly underestimating his ability, he hopped from one company to another every time he was offered a promotion to a leadership position.

“Imposter Syndrome,” XKCD. © Randall Munroe. (Source)

The term “imposter syndrome” was coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes about two decades before the Dunning-Kruger effect was known. Unlike Dunning and Kruger, who were inspired by a robbery case, Clance and Imes’ findings stemmed from the experience of their clients, who were mainly successful women. They noticed a similar pattern of concern among the high-achieving women who consulted them: they felt like a phonies and feared being discovered as intellectual imposters. 

According to Clance and Imes, “imposters” typically fall into one of two groups: the intelligent ones and the sibling or relative of the intelligent ones. 

Here’s an analogy: Tina and Claire are sisters who suffered from imposter syndrome but belong in different imposter groups. Tina’s family treated her as “the intelligent one” based on how she demonstrated precocity as an infant and toddler, such as by learning to walk, talk, and read at an early age. Naturally, she grew up internalizing her family’s definition of brightness as “perfection with ease”. However, when she faced difficulties later on in school or other aspects of life, she began to doubt herself and fear being exposed as an intellectual imposter if she failed to meet her family’s expectations.

Belonging to the other group, Claire who did not learn as quickly as Tina did, was referred to as the “less intelligent one.” As she grew up wanting to prove her intellectual competence to her family, she worked hard in school and eventually achieved outstanding scores and academic honors, often performing better than Tina. Despite the many successes, her achievements failed to gain acknowledgment from her family who still held on to the belief that Tina was the bright one. She began to doubt herself and started feeling that her accomplishments might be attributed to other factors besides her intellectual competency. And thus, the imposter phenomenon emerges. 

Imposter syndrome can affect anyone. In fact, even Maya Angelou and Albert Einstein, who referred to himself as the “involuntary swindler”, have suffered from imposter syndrome despite their level of accomplishment. 

While a little bit of modesty or confidence doesn’t hurt, inaccurate self-judgment may lead to unfortunate decisions. Knowing how competent we are and how our skills stack up against others helps us figure out when we can forge ahead on our own decisions and when we need, instead, to seek out advice. 

Header image (c) Alan Levine


  • Stephanie Jyet Quan Loo

    Stephanie Jyet Quan Loo received her BSc. (Hons) Medical Biotechnology at International Medical University, Malaysia. She is a passionate learner and aims to direct her experience and knowledge to translate complex details into comprehensible information for the public. She likes sports, books, and can speak 5 languages. You can find her on Twitter @StephanieJQL or learn more about her on her website at https://www.stephaniejq.com

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