What Is The Dunning-Kruger effect In Business

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Understanding the Dunning-Kruger effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect was first coined by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger in 1999. They argued that the scope of a person’s ignorance is often invisible to them – particularly in fields where they are underqualified. Dunning and Kruger called this meta-ignorance, or ignorance of ignorance, which can lead to individuals overestimating their abilities.

This ignorance also extends to other people. A person who is ignorant of their shortcomings may simultaneously believe their ability is superior to others. This is in direct contrast to a person with true ability in their chosen field. With increased knowledge, they are humbled by how much they are yet to learn. Indeed, the only way that an ignorant person will acknowledge their lack of ability is when they are alerted to the fact through education.

The Dunning-Kruger effect in business

The Dunning-Kruger effect can also affect businesses, particularly when new products or concepts are introduced into the market. For example, the introduction of digital currency and blockchain technology resulted in the rapid formation of many new entrepreneurial companies. Unfortunately, many lacked the required knowledge and awareness to understand their mistakes before they impacted their viability.

This initial overconfidence can also affect businesses that are unwilling to take the educated advice of other professionals. Legal representation, accounting, and financial planning are tasks that some businesses attempt to save money on because they genuinely believe they have the required skills. Of course, the consequences of doing so are often financially disastrous.

Addressing the Dunning-Kruger effect in practice

Since individuals and businesses are largely ignorant of the Dunning-Kruger effect, it can be helpful to pause and reflect during day-to-day decision-making. The following points may help stop the effect before it inflicts further damage.

  1. Evaluate all company processes critically. In other words, is there a better, more efficient, or more economical way of doing things? Would a change in supply chain management yield higher profits? What about a change in payroll systems?
  2. Consider workplace culture. Managers should put themselves in their employee’s shoes and assess what kind of leadership they provide. Are they approachable, reasonable, fair, and open to solving problems? Would a leadership course broaden their leadership skills?
  3. Evaluate the business-to-consumer relationship. Businesses should ask themselves what they are like to work with from the customer’s perspective. Is online and offline communication professional and attentive? Does the business listen to and implement customer recommendations?

Ultimately, the Dunning-Kruger effect can be overcome with humility and critical thinking. Businesses and individuals who challenge their assumptions will at worst come away better equipped to improve themselves and their processes.

Dunning-Kruger effect examples

Here are some more examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect in action.


Earlier we noted that the effect caused some individuals to believe their performance was superior to others when the opposite was true. This tends to be most associated with one or two employees in a work environment who believe they are better than everyone else.

However, the effect can also impact leadership and cause those in senior positions to misjudge employee performance or their ability to lead. Indeed, in a University of Nebraska study, it was found that 68% of the faculty rated themselves in the top 25% in terms of teaching ability while 90% believed their ability was above average. These mathematical impossibilities demonstrate the power and prevalence of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Consumer finance

Consumers also tend to overestimate their financial nous and ignore obvious discrepancies between their actual and perceived financial performance.

In a National Financial Capability Study conducted in 2012, the United States Treasury found that 23% of the 25,000 participants were recently declared bankrupts who believed they possessed superior financial knowledge.


The Dunning-Kruger effect also impacts employee productivity. Some individuals create daily task lists that are beyond their capabilities and cannot possibly be completed in a single day.

This is caused by the employee overestimating their abilities with a general belief that they need less time to finish their tasks than they actually do. Productivity then decreases as they become disheartened and overwhelmed by their perceived predicament.

Emotional intelligence

Various studies have also investigated the link between emotional intelligence and the Dunning-Kruger effect. In a 2013 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Dunning together with Oliver J. Sheldon and Daniel R. Ames analyzed emotional intelligence across three studies involving professional students.

The researchers found that the least-skilled students had limited knowledge of deficits in their performance. They were also the most likely to criticize the accuracy or relevance of feedback that could help them improve. The top performers in the studies were the individuals most motivated to improve their emotional intelligence after receiving feedback.

Humour, logical reasoning, and English grammar

Dunning’s original study in 1999 focused on 84 Cornell University students and how they perceived their abilities in humor, logical reasoning, and English grammar.

To assess grammar ability, for example, the students completed a test to assess their knowledge of American Standard Written English (AWSE). Those who scored lowest tended to overestimate their ability to use grammar correctly. They also overestimated their final test score. On the other hand, those who scored the highest in the grammar test tended to underestimate their ability and test score. These results, as we have learned in the prior examples, have been replicated many times over subsequent years.

Key takeaways:

  • The Dunning-Kruger Effect describes the phenomenon in which low competence individuals or businesses cannot recognize such incompetence.
  • A core component of the Dunning-Kruger effect is meta-ignorance, or ignorance of one’s ignorance. This leads to an overestimation of ability and in some cases, an underestimation of the abilities of others.
  • Critical thinking with the goal of improving is the best way to overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Connected Business Frameworks

Ansoff Matrix

You can use the Ansoff Matrix as a strategic framework to understand what growth strategy is more suited based on the market context. Developed by mathematician and business manager Igor Ansoff, it assumes a growth strategy can be derived by whether the market is new or existing, and the product is new or existing.

Five Product Levels

Marketing consultant Philip Kotler developed the Five Product Levels model. He asserted that a product was not just a physical object but also something that satisfied a wide range of consumer needs. According to that Kotler identified five types of products: core product, generic product, expected product, augmented product, and potential product.

Growth-Share Matrix

In the 1970s, Bruce D. Henderson, founder of the Boston Consulting Group, came up with The Product Portfolio (aka BCG Matrix, or Growth-share Matrix), which would look at a successful business product portfolio based on potential growth and market shares. It divided products into four main categories: cash cows, pets (dogs), question marks, and stars.

Ansoff Matrix

You can use the Ansoff Matrix as a strategic framework to understand what growth strategy is more suited based on the market context. Developed by mathematician and business manager Igor Ansoff, it assumes a growth strategy can be derived by whether the market is new or existing, and the product is new or existing.

Blitzscaling Canvas

The Blitzscaling business model canvas is a model based on the concept of Blitzscaling, which is a particular process of massive growth under uncertainty, and that prioritizes speed over efficiency and focuses on market domination to create a first-scaler advantage in a scenario of uncertainty.

Business Analysis Framework

Business analysis is a research discipline that helps driving change within an organization by identifying the key elements and processes that drive value. Business analysis can also be used in Identifying new business opportunities or how to take advantage of existing business opportunities to grow your business in the marketplace.

Gap Analysis

A gap analysis helps an organization assess its alignment with strategic objectives to determine whether the current execution is in line with the company’s mission and long-term vision. Gap analyses then help reach a target performance by assisting organizations to use their resources better. A good gap analysis is a powerful tool to improve execution.

Business Model Canvas

The business model canvas is a framework proposed by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur in Busines Model Generation enabling the design of business models through nine building blocks comprising: key partners, key activities, value propositions, customer relationships, customer segments, critical resources, channels, cost structure, and revenue streams.

Lean Startup Canvas

The lean startup canvas is an adaptation by Ash Maurya of the business model canvas by Alexander Osterwalder, which adds a layer that focuses on problems, solutions, key metrics, unfair advantage based, and a unique value proposition. Thus, starting from mastering the problem rather than the solution.

Digital Marketing Circle

digital channel is a marketing channel, part of a distribution strategy, helping an organization to reach its potential customers via electronic means. There are several digital marketing channels, usually divided into organic and paid channels. Some organic channels are SEO, SMO, email marketing. And some paid channels comprise SEM, SMM, and display advertising.

Blue Ocean Strategy

A blue ocean is a strategy where the boundaries of existing markets are redefined, and new uncontested markets are created. At its core, there is value innovation, for which uncontested markets are created, where competition is made irrelevant. And the cost-value trade-off is broken. Thus, companies following a blue ocean strategy offer much more value at a lower cost for the end customers.

Balanced Scorecard

First proposed by accounting academic Robert Kaplan, the balanced scorecard is a management system that allows an organization to focus on big-picture strategic goals. The four perspectives of the balanced scorecard include financial, customer, business process, and organizational capacity. From there, according to the balanced scorecard, it’s possible to have a holistic view of the business.

ReadBalanced Scorecard

PEST Analysis

The PESTEL analysis is a framework that can help marketers assess whether macro-economic factors are affecting an organization. This is a critical step that helps organizations identify potential threats and weaknesses that can be used in other frameworks such as SWOT or to gain a broader and better understanding of the overall marketing environment.

ReadPestel Analysis

Scenario Planning

Businesses use scenario planning to make assumptions on future events and how their respective business environments may change in response to those future events. Therefore, scenario planning identifies specific uncertainties – or different realities and how they might affect future business operations. Scenario planning attempts at better strategic decision making by avoiding two pitfalls: underprediction, and overprediction.

ReadScenario Planning

SWOT Analysis

SWOT Analysis is a framework used for evaluating the business’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It can aid in identifying the problematic areas of your business so that you can maximize your opportunities. It will also alert you to the challenges your organization might face in the future.

ReadSWOT Analysis In A Nutshell

Growth Matrix

In the FourWeekMBA growth matrix, you can apply growth for existing customers by tackling the same problems (gain mode). Or by tackling existing problems, for new customers (expand mode). Or by tackling new problems for existing customers (extend mode). Or perhaps by tackling whole new problems for new customers (reinvent mode).

ReadGrowth Matrix In A Nutshell

Comparable Analysis Framework

A comparable company analysis is a process that enables the identification of similar organizations to be used as a comparison to understand the business and financial performance of the target company. To find comparables you can look at two key profiles: the business and financial profile. From the comparable company analysis it is possible to understand the competitive landscape of the target organization.

ReadComparable Analysis Framework In A Nutshell

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