“Lie Witness News,” a feature on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, is one of the funniest late night television bits since Johnny Carson performed “Carnac the Magnificent.”
What Kimmel and his production staff may or may not know is that the segment is founded on very sound psychological principles.
The underlying premise is people just do not like to say, “I don’t know.” Being uninformed on a topic is no barrier to having a firm opinion on that topic.
Kimmel dispatches his team to Hollywood Boulevard where they solicit reactions of passersby to a variety of questions based on hilariously impossible propositions.
For instance, people were asked if the film Godzilla was offensive to those who survived the “giant reptile attack on Tokyo that killed 100,000 people in 1954.” Or more recently, people were quizzed about the new Winter Olympic events of “ice fishing” or “horse ice skating.” What about Elon Musk’s “Tesla Snowboards?” Or the jump of The Great Wall of China?
No matter how absurd the inquiry, people are often ready to address the issue with confident, but totally unknowledgeable, viewpoints.
PhD social psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning broached this issue in 1999 with their paper “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self Assessment.”
This groundbreaking paper introduced the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” — put in simple words, the effect posits people sometimes tend to have a grandiose impression of their abilities. They inflate their skill sets, which can lead to incorrect conclusions and poor choices. It’s a double whammy situation: they don’t know what they don’t know. Because of this ignorance, they don’t have the baseline knowledge required to recognize their limits.
In terms of poor choices, Dunning and Kruger cite the true story of a Pittsburgh robber who looted two banks in broad daylight. He even smiled at the security cameras while doing so. When he was later arrested, the robber, whose name was McArthur Wheeler, was astonished that his face was so clearly visible on the security tapes. He had rubbed lemon juice on his face prior to the stick ups — because lemon juice is used in making invisible ink, Wheeler had convinced himself that his face would not register on any recording. He clearly did not know that he didn’t know.
The Dunning-Kruger effect can produce a false sense of confidence that can impact all of us, even those who have incredible skills. For instance, great athletes may produce at high levels on the playing field, but that doesn’t mean they have money management talent.
In their original study, Dunning and Kruger use the term “metacognition” to refer to the ability to correctly self-monitor performance levels. This means individuals can accurately measure how well they are doing at a particular task and distinguish good from bad execution. It is deficient metacognition that produces a sense of illusory superiority: the individual develops confidence in a preeminence which does not exist.
Dunning and Kruger conducted their research by measuring the abilities of a group of Cornell University undergraduates in the areas of logical reasoning, grammar, and humor. Before seeing the test results, the participants were asked to make estimates about their performances. In all three domains, the participants who scored in the bottom quartile grossly overestimated their achievements.
The researchers concluded that these overestimates were a result of insufficient metacognitive skills. They also discovered that by improving the proficiency and understanding of these participants — thus increasing their metacognitions — this group was more able to estimate their actual performance levels.
In 2015, Dunning and colleagues Stav Atir and Emily Rosenzweig, conducted research that could have come out of Jimmy Kimmell’s writers’ room. In this study, participants were asked if they were familiar with concepts from various scientific disciplines. A solid majority claimed knowledge of constructs that were invented for the research — entirely fictitious concepts like the “philosophy of logistic heresy,” “biology of metatoxins,” and the “plates of parallax.”
This phenomenon of claiming more expertise than we actually possess is called “overclaiming.” Some say it is a general human tendency to believe we have some familiarity with everything we encounter. Others say it may be more rooted in narcissism.
Dunning summarizes his effect this way: “Because it is so easy to judge the idiocy of others, it may be sorely tempting to think this doesn’t apply to you. But the problem of unrecognized ignorance is one that visits us all.” He quotes humorist Josh Billings who said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”