I was recently reading a rather vitriolic comment thread on a blog post related to carbon dioxide and global warming and came across references to the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which people who made what seemed to me like outlandish statements about climatology while admitting that they had no formal training in any related field were advised to look up the Dunning-Kruger effect and then come back to the conversation.  One commentor did and when he came back he was highly offended that anyone would say the Dunning-Kruger effect would apply to him.  Intrigued, I resolved to look into the Dunning-Kruger effect myself and see what the fuss was all about, and, I must say, I find it both intuitive and fascinating at the same time.

Essentially, the Dunning-Kruger effect is simply that the less competent a person is in a given field the less ability that person has to recognize just how incompetent they are so they actually end up with a vastly overinflated view of how competent they are.  Or, as Dunning and Kruger wrote when they published their results in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.

Fascinating, no?  But what, I can hear 10,000 Birds readers asking, does this have to do with birding?  The answer, of course, is that the least competent birders, people who probably shouldn’t even be referred to as birders, have the most overinflated view of their own birding ability!

If you are someone who spends time in the field carrying binoculars anywhere near where Bald Eagles might be a possibility you have probably had a conversation like this.

Mr. Incompetent: Hey, did you see that eagle?

You: No. Where did you see an eagle?

Mr. Incompetent: Over there, sitting in that tree [points]

You: [putting binoculars up] Oh, that’s a Red-tailed Hawk.

Mr. Incompetent: No way, that bird is way too big to be a hawk. I know all about eagles and that’s an eagle.

You: [sighing] It has a red tail! And Bald Eagles are much larger and have white heads and tails!

Mr. Incompetent: Young eagles don’t! That’s probably why it is smaller.  I even heard this eagle scream and everyone knows only eagles scream.

You: [Give up and walk away]

So, did that sound familiar?  Note that the Mr. Incompetent was correct in that subadult Bald Eagles have neither a white head nor a white tail but that Mr. Incompetent was completely oblivious to the fact that Bald Eagles never, ever, scream but Red-tailed Hawks do!  But the truth is that one single fact does not make a person competent, and that little tiny bit of knowledge, which might have been gleaned while flipping channels and momentarily pausing on a nature show, only made Mr. Incompetent more sure of the fact that he was actually Mr. Competent, a nice illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect, if I do say so myself.

What I am going to share with you now might shock some of you, but, well, here we go: I have not always known as much about birds as I do now (not that I know anywhere near as much as people who have birding their whole lives but I know which end of the binoculars to look through anyway).  And, not too many years ago, I can remember having the conversation below with a more experienced (and very patient) birder:

Me: Hey, what other raptors besides Bald Eagles scream?

More Experienced Birder: I don’t understand what you mean.

Me: Well, I was out birding the other day and this raptor went over but it was not big enough to be an eagle, but it screamed like they do.  What do you think it was?

MEB: Corey, I hate to break it to you, but Bald Eagles don’t scream. [hand up to stop me from interrupting] I know, I know, it seems like every time you see an eagle on TV or in a movie it screams but that doesn’t change the fact that they simply do not scream.  What you saw was the raptor that does scream, a Red-tailed Hawk.

Me: Well I feel like quite the dummy…

Now, I was stunned and amazed and felt both stupid and angry.  How could I not know that eagles don’t scream?  And how could there be this vast conspiracy in the entertainment industry just to make poor unwitting fools think that they do?  But, I must admit, learning this bit of information in such a nice way made me realize that there was a whole heck of a lot more about birds that I didn’t know than what I did know.  It also made me realize that though my folks were amazed at my ability to tell a Purple Finch from House Finch I still had a long way to go (and still do) before I could be considered anything close to an expert.  So while my birding skills might only have increased a small amount that day, my metacognitive skills in relation to birding took a great leap forward.

The fact is that there are thousands, if not millions, of people out there that might take a passing interest in birds, who might own a field guide or put out seed, who might, on occasion, get a bird completely wrong but not want to admit how wildly off they were in their identification.  Understand that it is not their fault that they have no idea how incompetent they are, but it is merely their lack of metacognition and make it your duty to teach them more so that the incompetent and overconfident can become the mildly competent and insecure, and eventually, maybe even competent, which is the best most of us can hope for!

So, the next time you encounter someone in the field who is a blowhard know-it-all but actually knows not very much at all, well, try to teach them.  Remember that the more that they learn the more likely they will be to understand the limits of their own competence, the less likely they are to have an overinflated view of their own skills, and the less likely they will report a misidentified rarity to a birding listserv and have you waste your time and energy chasing it!

Finally, I am not in any way competent when it comes to psychology so, if I managed to misunderstand something here and have fallen victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect myself, well, please forgive me and feel free to correct me in the comments.

This post was originally published on 22 September 2009, but we hate to keep posts this good buried in the archives!


Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.