Psychological research has consistently found that the least competent individuals tend to overestimate their competence, while highly competent individuals tend to underestimate their competence. Now, new research published in the European Journal of Neuroscience indicates that this metacognitive phenomenon — known as the Dunning-Kruger effect — applies to episodic memory and is associated with particular electrophysiological processes.
“When I was on the faculty at Cal State, I frequently noticed the over-estimating errors and the better-than-average-effect exhibited among our department and administration, and like many people probably do, wondered about what is happening in the brain for such instances,” said study author Richard Addante, an assistant professor at Florida Institute of Technology.
“So, I looked on PubMed expecting to find some fMRI or EEG findings from the early 2000s, but was surprised to find nothing at all. I figured that someone should study it to find out what’s happening (or what is not happening) in the brain, and resolved that since no one else was doing it that it was my scientific duty to explore it.”
“I thought about what would be needed in an empirical design to capture the Dunning-Kruger effect, and set off to conduct the study with a graduate student in my lab,” Addante explained. “That student, Alana Muller, took ownership of the project, did a terrific job with the experiment, and is now in the PhD program at University of Arizona.”
The researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) to examine the brain waves of 61 college students as they completed a word recognition confidence test. The participants were first shown words and asked to indicate whether they represented manmade or alive items. Electrodes were then placed on their head to record their brain activity as they were shown more words and asked whether they recognized them from the previous session.
Importantly, the participants also indicated how confident they were that the word had or had not been mentioned before. They also estimated how well they were performing compared to others.
The researchers found evidence for a Dunning–Kruger effect for memory recognition ability. The lowest performing participants overestimated their performance on the memory task. The highest performing participants, on the other hand, moderately underestimated their performance.
After analyzing reaction times, the researchers also found that those who overestimated their poor performance tended to be faster in judging themselves to be in the top percentile of performers, while those who underestimated their high performance tended to be faster in judging themselves to be performing poorly.
“It is easy to recognize that people should not be so quick to assume they are better than others; so, be more humble, less arrogant, and rely upon clear details instead of fuzzy intuition. But I think even more important is the often-overlooked part: which is that people should believe in themselves more often, because our best performing people are actually holding themselves back by thinking that others are better,” Addante told PsyPost.
“We often see this dearth of competence and expertise across society’s levels of leadership, and I think it reminds us that we benefit from being led by our best. So, don’t be scared to throw your hat in the ring just because you think others may be better — that humility is a good trait that could indicate you may be best suited to lead. Believe in yourself: others may not be as much better as you might think.”
In addition, data from the electroencephalogram recordings indicated that those who overestimated their poor performance and those who underestimated their high performance “were relying upon, or being influenced by, different processes of memory,” the researchers wrote in their study. Overestimators displayed a pattern of brain activity that indicated they were relying on a generic sense of familiarity that lacked contextual information.
“Be careful to fall into the easy and common trap of ascribing the effect to others when lacking a concrete basis for the judgment, lest we exhibit the effect ourselves. That is a common phenomenon to see on the internet and is often an ironic misapplication of the Dunning-Kruger effect,” Addante said.
“It was shocking to see how much the best performers sold themselves short, held themselves back, and believed that other people were better,” he added. “If we extrapolate that to society, we see a major reason (and potential fix) for why incompetence may be so pervasive in many leadership positions. Truly, believe in yourself, don’t over-estimate others, and if you have the right stuff of skills, grit, and perseverance, you can make an incredible difference.”
The study, “Neural correlates of the Dunning–Kruger effect“, was authored by Alana Muller, Lindsey A. Sirianni, and Richard J. Addante.