Learn Academic English 7: The Dunning-Kruger effect


Some students seem to overestimate their Academic English skills.
They are absolutely confident that their English language skills are excellent.
Only when students need to complete authentic academic reading and writing tasks their language deficiencies become obvious. Students find that tasks such as a critical reading of journal articles, evaluating statistical evidence, analyzing and synthesizing academic materials or writing longer (3,000 words and more) academic projects require skills different from the ones needed in a secondary school or on IELTS/TOFEL tests. Therefore, as an academic tutor, I learned to take students’ reading and writing self-assessment with a pinch of salt. From my experience, the most confident students often get the worst results.

Interestingly, there is a psychological phenomenon behind this behavior.
Students’ self-assessment is often affected by a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

About the lesson
So today’s lesson will be just about the Dunning-Kruger effect.
It will help students understand why human self-assessment is often biased.
As usual, the lesson will help improve academic English and develop critical thinking.
Hopefully,  students will also learn how to counteract the human tendency toward overconfidence.
In the first part of the lesson, a psychologist David Dunning (University of Michigan) describes the eponymous the Dunning-Kruger effect in a TED-Ed video presentation. In the second part, we will have a look at the original research article by Dunning and Kruger (1999): ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments’. The article was published in an influential Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and cited extensively.

Let’s start with TED-Ed video.
Listen to what David has to say about the human ability to self-evaluate.
Answer the comprehension questions and complete the tasks.

Important Vocabulary Needed for Comprehension

competent – adj. adequate for the purpose; properly or sufficiently qualified or capable or efficient
self-esteem – noun a feeling of pride in yourself; the quality of being worthy of esteem or respect
psychological – adj. mental or emotional as opposed to physical in nature; of or relating to or determined by psychology
overestimate – noun a calculation that results in an estimate that is too high; an appraisal that is too high; verb make too high an estimate of; assign too high a value to
phenomenon – noun any state or process known through the senses rather than by intuition or reasoning; a remarkable development
illusory – adj. based on or having the nature of an illusion
superiority – noun the quality of being superior; displaying a sense of being better than others; the quality of being a competitive advantage; the state of excelling or surpassing or going beyond usual limits
violate – verb destroy; fail to agree with; be in violation of; as of rules or patterns; destroy and strip of its possession; act in disregard of laws, rules, contracts, or promises; force (someone) to have sex against their will; violate the sacred character of a place or language
ethics – noun the philosophical study of moral values and rules; motivation based on ideas of right and wrong
overrate – verb make too high an estimate of
instinct – adj. (followed by `with’)deeply filled or permeated; noun inborn pattern of behavior often responsive to specific stimuli
isolate – adj. not close together in time; under forced isolation especially for health reasons; cut off or left behind; remote and separate physically or socially; being or feeling set or kept apart from others; marked by separation of or from usually contiguous elements
vulnerable – adj. capable of being wounded or hurt; susceptible to criticism or persuasion or temptation; susceptible to attack
delusion – noun the act of deluding; deception by creating illusory ideas; a mistaken or unfounded opinion or idea; (psychology) an erroneous belief that is held in the face of evidence to the contrary
incompetence – noun lack of physical or intellectual ability or qualifications; inability of a part or organ to function properly
prevent – verb prevent from doing something or being in a certain state; keep from happening or arising; make impossible
preliminary – adj. designed to orient or acquaint with a situation before proceeding; noun something that serves as a preceding event or introduces what follows; a minor match preceding the main event
deficit – noun the property of being an amount by which something is less than expected or required; an excess of liabilities over assets (usually over a certain period); (sports) the score by which a team or individual is losing; a deficiency or failure in neurological or mental functioning
moderate – adj. not extreme; being within reasonable or average limits; not excessive or extreme; marked by avoidance of extravagance or extremes; noun a person who takes a position in the political center; verb make less fast or intense; preside over; restrain or temper; make less strong or intense; soften; make less severe or harsh; lessen the intensity of; temper; hold in restraint; hold or keep within limits
inept – adj. revealing lack of perceptiveness or judgment or finesse; generally incompetent and ineffectual; not elegant or graceful in expression
inaccurate – adj. not accurate; containing or characterized by error
self-perception – perception of oneself
perceive – verb become conscious of; to become aware of through the senses
invisible – adj. impossible or nearly impossible to see; imperceptible by the eye; not prominent or readily noticeable
feedback – noun response to an inquiry or experiment; the process in which part of the output of a system is returned to its input in order to regulate its further output

Task 1
David used in the presentation a few interesting colloquial expressions. Can you replace them with more academic ones?

stack up
forge ahead
seek out
not very good at
make mistakes
catching their errors
can’t see their own faults
keep learning

Task 2
Explain the meaning of the following expressions:

logical reasoning
the laws of math
isolated findings
leadership skills
emotional intelligence
a double curse
preliminary rounds
ego blinding us
cognitive bias

Task 3
Answer the questions

Do you agree that incompetent people think they are amazing? Any examples?
What kind of driver you are? Is your self-assessment affected by the Dunning-Kruger bias?
Define the Dunning–Kruger effect. Find an alternative definition from literature.
Do you agree that highly skilled individuals underestimate their relative competence?
Do you think that the Dunning-Kruger might be misconstrued? How?
David said ‘when arguing with a fool, first make sure the other person isn’t doing the same thing’. Can you elaborate on this?
How can we lessen the effects of the Dunning-Kruger bias?
Does the Dunning-Kruger bias apply only to incompetent people?
Do personality traits modify the Dunning-Kruger effect?
Do you know any politician affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect?
Is ‘Flat Earth Conspiracy’ an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect? Why?
Are you suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect?
Find one recent example of research on the Dunning-Kruger effect? (last five years)
Have you ever witnessed the Dunning-Kruger effect?
How do you overcome the Dunning–Kruger effect?
How do you explain the Dunning-Kruger effect to someone you think is affected by it?
How do I deal with a person who suffers from the Dunning-Kruger effect?
Is Donald Trump an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect?

Task 4
Read the article
Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1121.

Task 5
Answer the questions

What are the notable flaws in Dunning-Kruger as a theory?
What event inspired the study?
Is there a positive correlation between actual performance and perceived performance?
How does the regression toward the mean affect Dunning-Kruger?
What is the most common criticism of the Dunning-Kruger effect?
Explain the difference between percentile and percent.

Task 6
Summarize the data form the graph