AN 4.187 Vassakāra (the Dunning-Kruger effect)

AN 4.187 Vassakāra

On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Rājagaha in the Bamboo Grove, the squirrel sanctuary. Then the brahmin Vassakāra, the chief minister of Magadha, approached the Blessed One and exchanged greetings with him…. Then, sitting to one side, he said to the Blessed One:
(1) “Master Gotama, can a bad person know of a bad person: ‘This fellow is a bad person’?”
“It is, brahmin, impossible and inconceivable that a bad person can know of a bad person: ‘This fellow is a bad person.’”
(2) “Then can a bad person know of a good person: ‘This fellow is a good person’?”
“It is also impossible and inconceivable that a bad person can know of a good person: ‘This fellow is a good person.’”
(3) “Then can a good person know of a good person: ‘This fellow is a good person’?”
“It is possible that a good person can know of a good person: ‘This fellow is a good person.’”
(4) “Then can a good person know of a bad person: ‘This fellow is a bad person’?”
“It is also possible that a good person can know of a bad person: ‘This fellow is a bad person.’


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. Essentially, low ability 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. The term lends a scientific name and explanation to a problem that many people immediately recognize—that fools are blind to their own foolishness. As Charles Darwin wrote in his book The Descent of Man, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

The psychological phenomenon of illusory superiority was identified as a form of cognitive bias in Kruger and Dunning’s 1999 study, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”.[1] The identification derived from the cognitive bias evident in the criminal case of McArthur Wheeler, who robbed banks while his face was covered with lemon juice, which he believed would make it invisible to the surveillance cameras. This belief was based on his misunderstanding of the chemical properties of lemon juice as an invisible ink.

Other investigations of the phenomenon, such as “Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence” (2003), indicate that much incorrect self-assessment of competence derives from the person’s ignorance of a given activity’s standards of performance. Dunning and Kruger’s research also indicates that training in a task, such as solving a logic puzzle, increases people’s ability to accurately evaluate how good they are at it.

In Self-insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself (2005), Dunning described the Dunning–Kruger effect as “the anosognosia of everyday life”, referring to a neurological condition in which a disabled person either denies or seems unaware of his or her disability. He stated: “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.”

Strategies to overcome or minimize the Kruger-Dunning effect

1 Be aware

Step one is to be aware of that effect. You need to understand how your mind works and what kind of biases (there are plenty of them and I encourage you to read about them) can prevent you from being a rational human being. Dunning and Kruger claim that when your experience in some domain increases, the confidence level decreases. It may even feel like Impostor syndrome. Then as you gain more knowledge and develop your skills you will finally become a true expert and your confidence level will begin to improve again.

2 Keep improving yourself

Be humble. Don’t assume that you know everything. Admit the fact that there is something you don’t know. It’s perfectly fine. You just need to continuously improve yourself. It can be hard because feeling wise is pleasant. But you need to always raise your standards. The best approach for self-improvement is to dig deeper in order to understand a particular topic better. It allows you to recognize how much there still is to learn.

3 Ask for feedback

The best way to minimize Dunning-Kruger effect is to ask about feedback regularly. This one is difficult because of confirmation bias. Most of us are not good at dealing with criticism even if it’s constructive criticism. It’s hard to accept our inaccuracies and misconceptions. But this definitely is an effective strategy to speed up your learning process.

Published by Vimutta Fellowship Toronto

The Vimutta community is a group of Theravādan supporters in Canada, who share a focus on the practices based on the Buddha's teachings on the path toward liberation. The Pāli term“Vimutta” literally means “liberated, freed” from the cycle of death and rebirth (samsāra). If you share the vision and are interested and want to contribute, please feel free to contact us.