Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The Clueless “Know-it-All” – The Dunning-Kruger Effect

“Dunning-Kruger Effect”
Musings of a Veteran


I was fortunate that I read the classic military war novel Catch-22 before I joined the Navy.

Reading Catch-22 gave me a better understand the curious goings on and peculiar behaviour of some of the idiosyncratic characters I came across in the Navy and it helped me maintain my sanity in the rather peculiar Naval Environment.

There were plenty of “Cathcarts” “Dreedles” “Scheisskopfs” “Peckems” “Korns” “Captain Blacks” “Milo Minderbinders” “Doc Daneekas” and “Wintergreens” around – and occasionally – you also noticed a “Yossarian” or a “Dunbar”.

In fact – during my long career in the Navy – I saw an analogous caricature of every character of Catch-22 – including some of the female characters.

I am sure you have read Catch-22.

In case you haven’t read Catch-22 as yet – do read the book – it will surely bring a smile to your lips.

By the way – “Catch-22” is a military term that is confusing and difficult to describe. In short – its basic meaning is that if there was a rule – no matter what the rule is – there is always an exception to it. There is always a “catch” to everything.


There are many themes and morals in Catch-22 and one such concept which I found relevant in today’s Navy (and the Defence Services – and indeed – in all walks of life) is enunciated in chapter XI – the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” exemplified by the character of “Captain Black”.

In the field of psychology – the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” is a cognitive bias in which people mistakenly assess their own cognitive ability as much greater than it actually is.

In short – they overestimate their own competence and abilities.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a type of cognitive bias in which people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are. Incompetent people do not possess the skills needed to recognize their own incompetence. The combination of poor self-awareness and low cognitive ability leads them to overestimate their own capabilities.

In the novel “Catch-22” – the character of “Captain Black” is a metaphorical example of the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”.

Captain Black is an “intelligence officer”.

He feels that this means he is the most intelligent of the officers.

Captain Black is clearly displaying characteristics of the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”.

He thinks that an “intelligence” officer must necessarily be intelligent – and – ironically – this speaks of his lack of intelligence.

(You must heard the saying: “Military Intelligence” is an Oxymoron)

Despite being a “non-combatant” – Captain Black feels that he deserves to be the Squadron Commander – solely in view of his own perception that he is the most intelligent officer in the squadron since he is the squadron “intelligence” officer.  

Incidentally – in the novel Catch-22 – Captain Black is never shown doing any actual intelligence work – or – anything very intelligent.

Here is an appropriately paraphrased extract from Catch-22 (Chapter XI) on Captain Black:

“…Captain Black thought that he was the logical man to be the Squadron Commander. To begin with – he was the Squadron Intelligence Officer – which meant that he was more intelligent than everyone else in the squadron. True – he was not on combat status – as all Squadron Commanders customarily were – but this was really another powerful argument in his favour – since his life was in no danger and he would be able to fill the post for as long as his country needed him…”

(Hope Civil Services Officers don’t use this argument and feel that they are better suited to command the Military Armed Forces…!!!)

In your organization – aren’t there persons like “Captain Black” – who – despite being clueless – he thinks that he is a super-intelligent “know-it-all”…?

Long ago – I once came across a Senior Naval Officer – who was a self-proclaimed technical “expert”.

Though he was basically a Marine Engineer – he thought he was “cat’s whiskers” in the latest modern state-of-the-art technologies – an “authority” on all technical matters.

To our horror – we discovered how clueless he was – when we realized that he didn’t know the difference between Electromagnetic Wave Propagation (in the air) and Sound Propagation (underwater) and he was confused on the basic principles of missiles and torpedoes.  

Despite his “cluelessness” – he behaved like a “know-it-all”

Once – we saw an infantry officer pontificating on electronic warfare – though it was apparent that he was quite “clueless” on the subject.

The worst is when such self-styled experts (who are actually clueless) are appointed in responsible positions – which can potentially result in disastrous consequences.

Thanks to the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” – a clueless “Generalist” starts imagining himself to be a “know-it-all” Specialist.

We see good organizations being ruined by such clueless “know-it-all” Generalists who seem to be displacing Technocrats everywhere.

We see persons displaying characteristics of the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” everywhere – in politics, in the business and corporate world, in the bureaucracy, in the military, and indeed, in all professions, and in personal relationships too.

These persons fail to recognize their own incompetence.

They are not aware of their lack of ability.

On the contrary – they overestimate their own competence and capabilities – and – they have a self-perception of “illusory superiority”.

They are not “imposters” who are aware of their own incompetence and try to “fake” it.

Those afflicted by the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” are not “faking it” – they actually believe that they are super-competent and have exceptional abilities (despite the opposite being true).

They are blissfully unaware of their own incompetence.

This is because their own personal incompetence deprives them of the mental ability to realize just how inept they are.

As per the “Peter Principle” – you will rise to your level of incompetence.

Sadly – when you “achieve” your level of incompetence – you will not realize that you have become incompetent.

You will not realize that you are incompetent – because – having achieved your level of incompetence – you no longer have the competence to discern that you are incompetent.

You will be blissfully unaware of your own incompetence and may display symptoms of the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”.

Not only will you fail to recognize your own incompetence – but – on the contrary – you will feel confident that you are actually super-competent.

Though you are actually incompetent – you will be overconfident and overestimate your capabilities.

(In short – you will become a “Walter Mitty” type of character – living in an imaginary world of your own making)


The “Dunning-Kruger Effect” is a type of cognitive bias in which people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are.

Incompetent people do not possess the skills needed to recognize their own incompetence.

The combination of poor self-awareness and low cognitive ability leads them to overestimate their own capabilities.

Amusingly – this ignorance of their own incompetence creates a sense of overconfidence in “victims” of the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”.

Dear Reader – look around you – do you see examples of the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” – persons who are clueless – but who behave as if they are “know-it-all”.

Have you seen persons pontificating with confidence on topics about which they are obviously clueless – thereby exposing their ignorance and becoming laughing stocks….?  

Look inwards – Dear Reader – and introspect.

Have you become a victim of the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”….?

Do you feel that you are “smarter” than you actually are…?  


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