The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Image created with Midjourney. Image prompt:
Image created with Midjourney. Image prompt: 2d minimal style illustration of A person standing on the first peak of a mountain range, looking over to a higher peak in the distance, unaware of the deep valley in between. The first peak represents overconfidence due to lack of knowledge, the valley represents the realization of the complexity of a task, and the distant peak represents true expertise

If you're incompetent, you can't know you're incompetent... The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.

David Dunning

In the world of software development, there's a psychological principle that frequently impacts project outcomes - the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This effect is named after psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who published a study in 1999 illustrating that people with limited skills or knowledge in a particular area often overestimate their abilities.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect has significant implications in technology and software development, where the complexity of tasks and the required expertise often go underestimated, especially by less experienced or non-technical team members. Understanding this phenomenon is crucial to navigating the challenges it can present in a software development context.


The Fresh Graduate

Consider a fresh computer science graduate who, full of theoretical knowledge and minimal practical experience, is entrusted with developing a feature in an established, complex software product. The graduate, being unaware of the intricacies of working in a real-world software environment, might overestimate their ability to deliver the feature within a tight deadline. This situation is a classic case of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where the less someone knows about a domain, the more they tend to underestimate its complexity.

The Non-Technical Stakeholder

Another instance could be a non-technical stakeholder who, while well-versed in business aspects, lacks a deep understanding of the technical requirements of a project. They might underestimate the effort required to implement a seemingly simple feature, putting unrealistic pressure on the development team and causing friction. This is yet another manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger Effect and can lead to project delays and overworked teams.

The Experienced Developer

Interestingly, the Dunning-Kruger Effect also applies at the other end of the experience spectrum. An experienced software developer who has spent years mastering a domain may start to underestimate their own ability, overestimating the knowledge and skills of their peers. This can lead to hesitation in decision-making and a reluctance to take on leadership roles.

Connection to Creating Digital Software Products

The Dunning-Kruger Effect can impact the creation of digital software products at every level, from planning and development to deployment. Ignoring it can lead to over-promising and under-delivering, strained team dynamics, and reduced product quality. However, being aware of the effect can provide a pathway to mitigating its impact.

Teams can institute practices like peer review and pair programming to share knowledge and provide perspective on the complexity of tasks. Project managers can make it a point to involve technical team members in planning and estimation meetings to ensure realistic timelines. Cultivating an environment where people feel comfortable asking questions and admitting what they don't know can also help counteract the effect.

In conclusion, while the Dunning-Kruger Effect presents a challenge in software development, awareness and proactive steps can turn it into an opportunity for fostering communication, realistic planning, and continuous learning in your teams.

A closely related is the bias of Illusory superiority.

Real-world examples:

  • Apple vs. FBI: Why This Anti-Terror Hawk Switched Sides - In 2016 Senator Lindsey Graham changed his stance on Apple creating a 'backdoor' in their encryption of devices. Initially Graham had been critical of Apple challenging a request to create a 'backdoor', which he saw as necessary to investigate potential terrorist plots. However, by Graham's own admission, as he learned more about the technical complexity of the domain, he realised that he had assumed it to be far more simple than he had realised, and that such a backdoor could have serious negative consequences. This could potentially be considered an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect - a cyber-security expert would likely understand immediately how such a backdoor could be exploited, as they have deep understanding of the domain, a layperson might assume that phone security is more similar to physical security where the practice of having a 'master key' for law enforcement is possible, but this analogy does not apply sufficiently well to describe modern encryption in cyber-security.