Climbing the Dunning-Kruger Curve

Chris Reads
5 min readFeb 9, 2023

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a metacognitive phenomenon which compares the knowledge or ability someone has in a field or subject with their perception of their actual ability. Averaged across a general population, the curve is traditionally presented like this: a sharp upward slope indicating increased confidence with little knowledge, then a near-equally sharp decline demarcating the loss of confidence as people realize what they don’t know. The curve then slowly climbs upwards again, as people actually start gaining knowledge about the subject at hand. There are numerous criticisms of the effect, though most are really complaints of its broad applications and the misunderstanding of the original paper. For my non-scientific purposes however, this broad understanding and application is perfect.

Throughout the learning process for anything, it’s easy to feel the application of the Dunning-Kruger effect. As depth and breadth of knowledge increases, suddenly all the strongly held opinions of yesteryear make little to no sense. It’s embarrassing to look at these things in hindsight. The way a language learner’s confidence grows from memorizing vocabulary and conjugation tables until they are met with a native speaker, and then they realize how little they truly know. The way my strongly-held neoliberal political opinions of early high school quickly gave way to my libertarian days until the end of college, to the current point where I don’t even know how I stand today.

This is also why an overconfident rookie bothers people so much. Not only do they not know the largesse of their ignorance, but they also flout the advice of those who have seen themselves in identical situations. Recently at work, we had a new addition to the team with many positive traits: hardworking, inquisitive, and smart. The combination of these traits however, has lent them an outsized perception of what their role is on the team. They eschew their responsibilities in favour of asking what they believe are the right questions, and going down new paths, when all the questions and all the paths have in fact been previously trodden. It’s one thing to be humble and explore these avenues quietly, it’s an entirely different thing to make these same mistakes with an air of superiority. I have to remind myself that they will to settle into their pace soon, and I was likely the same way when I first joined.

I often wonder where I stand on the hypothetical curve for various things, if my understanding of topics is grossly outweighed by how much I think I know. For some topics, like finance I plead Socratic. All I know about stocks is that I know absolutely nothing at all. Four years of undergraduate business studies has shown me that all the Black-Scholes and Greeks in the world cannot beat a classic insider trade. For other things, it’s less clear. Am I still that new person at work to those who have been there for decades, overconfident and asking all the wrong questions? Will a few more years of political knowledge crack the veneer of cynicism that I’ve developed, and I will look back at my current self in disdain, shaking my head?

A good example of this for me is poker. I’ve played in the neighborhood of a couple hundred hours of the game and watched quite a few videos, though I’ve never deigned to read a book or a memorize a chart. Do I know more than someone who doesn’t play at all? Certainly. Am I happy when someone who has just watched Casino Royale sits at my table and talks about playing the man, not the cards? I grin wider than a shark. But to the extent that I like playing poker right now, that I feel confident about my poker abilities, were those hours enough to start me up that second curve? Or am I still climbing the first hill? Of course, I am not delusional enough to think the difference between myself and professional players is luck and bankroll. But do I still overrate my abilities in scoffing at those who don’t know what I’m doing? Am I just an overconfident rookie?

I posit that the Dunning-Kruger Curve is more of a recursive curve, similar to this, where every time someone climbs out of any of the valleys of ignorance, they will peak at a point that represents more confidence in themselves than the knowledge they actually have. Perhaps I’ve climbed out of the first pit of obliviousness, but I underestimate the difference between myself at other good players. Actually, poker and other games of skill are not the best examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect because it’s easy to judge one’s ability: play more games and see if you win or lose. Of course, those truly in the canyon of inexperience can still fool themselves of their superiority by blaming luck or any other number of extraneous factors other than skill.

For any subject in which anyone claims a degree of knowledge, I then also posit that it is impossible for them to know where they stand in relation to anyone further along the curve than they are. That is to say, they can look back and judge those less experienced, but it is very challenging for them to gauge how far ahead those in front of them are. Sun Tzu would tell us self-awareness is important to success, but no one tells us how to determine our ranking.

I’ve always been curious as to where I stand and what I know about various things which don’t have an objective ruler. I have a good idea of how strong my poker knowledge is, but what about politics? I can more easily gauge how strong of a runner I am, but what of my knowledge of Impressionist art? For certain things, one can see a little further ahead: despite all of my high school French teachers being much stronger at the language than I, it was still easy to rank them. And it’s easy for me to rank those who are worse at French, but to judge between two native speakers writing a dicteé? In the spirit of self-improvement it’d be lovely to know how I rank. But perhaps more importantly, I just want to make sure I’m not at the bottom of a Dunning Kruger curve I didn’t know about.

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