Dunning Kruger Effect vs. Imposter Syndrome: Overconfidence Opposites

The Dunning-Kruger effect: the opposite of imposter syndrome?

Have you ever accomplished something, but you felt undeserving of it? Maybe you got a promotion at work, but you feel like you only got it because of luck. Maybe you got into an Ivy League school, but you feel like it was a mistake and you really weren’t supposed to get accepted. It could feel like you are hiding behind a mask of fraudulence, worried you will be exposed for your perceived deception. If any of these feelings or experiences sound familiar, you most likely have experienced imposter syndrome

But what about the opposite? Have you ever ignored a warning because you "already know," or brushed off a criticism because you felt you knew better? On the opposite side of imposter syndrome sits overconfidence, otherwise known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

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While imposter syndrome develops when one underestimates their own values, skills, and accomplishments, the Dunning-Kruger effect is the polar opposite. You may have heard of this term before as it has been recognized as a common form of cognitive bias. However, the Dunning-Kruger effect is when one overestimates their own skills, knowledge, and achievements (Schlösser et al., 2013; Dunning, 2011; Kruger & Dunning, 1999).

The Dunning-Kruger effect may seem like an odd concept as we typically praise confidence and self-assurance. However, just like simple self-criticism can snowball into full-blown, debilitating imposter syndrome, inflated self-belief can develop into ignorance and arrogance. We all have moments of ignorance and arrogance, just like we all have moments of self-doubt and insecurity. While they are on opposite sides of the spectrum, imposter syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger effect are more similar than they are different. 

The Dunning-Kruger effect is experienced by almost everyone. For example, a student decides to not study for an exam because they feel confident in the material and it seems “easy.” Then, the student ends up failing their exam or getting a low grade due to their overestimation of knowledge. How do you know if you or someone else is suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect? Fortunately, the Dunning-Kruger effect is a bit easier to identify than imposter syndrome.

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1 They can’t seem to recognize their shortcomings

As stated by research Sui Huang (2013), the Dunning-Kruger effect is “ignorance of one’s ignorance.” If done healthily and constructively manner, recognizing one’s shortcomings can be incredibly helpful and instructive. This can be seen in someone who does not take criticism well or refuses to admit their wrongs as they perceive themselves to be correct. 

2 They are a “know-it-all”

We have all known a person that is a know-it-all. Perhaps we ourselves have had know-it-all moments. This is quite different from someone who is genuinely knowledgeable and educated on the topic at hand. These people tend to be dogmatic, stubborn, and dictatorial to an extent. It can be difficult to talk to someone who acts like they know everything and it can cause conflict. 

3 They tend to have difficulties with their superiors and peers

This is typically seen in classrooms or the workplace. Because those experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect cannot admit their wrongs and they come off as arrogant, it can evoke conflict. They may see themselves as more capable and knowledgeable which creates an “us vs them” mentality amongst the person and their peers/superiors.

The Dunning-Kruger effect may present itself in slightly different ways. A person experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect may have enough restraint to not cause conflict among their co-workers and supervisors or they may not appear as a blatant know-it-all. While it is important to foster self-assurance and inner strength, the line between ignorance and confidence can be thin. (Huang, 2013; Schlösser et al., 2013; Dunning, 2011; Kruger & Dunning, 1999).

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What is imposter syndrome?

By definition, imposter syndrome is the chronic feeling of fraudulence, self-doubt, and inadequacy (Bravata et al., 2020; Ruple, 2020; Armstrong & Shulman, 2019; Kolligian & Sternberg, 1991). Unfortunately, there tends to be a lack of awareness of imposter syndrome, and many of us experience imposter syndrome without even realizing it. 

Imposter syndrome typically arises in competitive environments or environments where one’s abilities may be measured in some capacity. Imposter syndrome is most commonly seen in college students, medical students, and high-level professionals (Baumann et al., 2020; Canning et al., 2020; Armstrong & Shulman, 2019; Slank, 2019). Many individuals with imposter syndrome may feel fearful that they will be “exposed” for their perceived fraudulence and their shortcomings will be revealed to everyone. Individuals experiencing imposter syndrome will often attribute their successes to luck, mistake, or a misperception by everyone else.

Imposter syndrome can foster a host of negative traits and mental disorders. Imposter syndrome, in and of itself, is not formally recognized as a mental disorder. However, if not recognized and managed, imposter syndrome can lead to burnout, anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion, low self-esteem, and chronic stress (Arleo et al., 2021; Baumann et al., 2020; Armstrong & Shulman, 2019). These adverse traits can lead to a decline in mental health, physical well-being, relationships, and work performance.

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Types of imposter syndrome

Just like many other things, imposter syndrome is not black and white. There are dimensions and qualities of it that may differ from person to person. While the fundamental feelings of fraudulence, inadequacies, and self-doubt remain, there are aberrations from the textbook definition of imposter syndrome (Rakestraw, 2017).

1 Workaholic imposters

This may be one of the most common types of imposter syndrome. Individuals who fall under the workaholic imposter category may feel the need to overwork and over-prepare in fear of losing their job, being demoted, or being viewed as incapable at their job. They may spend an excessive amount of time on a task or project to mitigate feelings of anxiety. Unfortunately, overachieving and overworking can have the opposite effect and elicit stronger feelings of anxiety. From the outside, these individuals may come off as hardworking and enthusiastic, however, they are shrouded in feelings of ineptitude and dread. Those experiencing the Dunning-Kruger Effect, on the other hand, might do the opposite: they might under-prepare, exuding confidence while not actually delivering much substance.

2 Lucky duck imposters 

Individuals who classify as lucky duck imposters will attribute their achievements and prosperities to luck or chance. They believe they just happen to be “in the right place at the right time with the right people.” While some people do seem inherently lucky or blessed, lucky duck imposters fear that their luck will run out (Rakestraw, 2017). These individuals typically do not believe in themselves or their skills as they believe external factors are responsible for their successes. Those experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect, on the other hand, likely wouldn't think twice, picking winning lottery numbers and saying, "I knew it." 

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3 Con artist imposters

To clarify, con artists imposters are not actual con artists. Rather, they are individuals who believe it is purely their personality, social skills, or charm that allowed them to be successful. In some cases, good social skills can have a lot of weight, however, these individuals believe their actual skills and attributes have no bearing on whether they are successful. In a strange way, those experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect are more like cons, but don't even know it.

4 Chameleon imposters

Individuals who identify as chameleon imposters may be seen as “wallflowers” or introverts. These individuals prefer to work alone as they fear their downfalls and shortcomings will be revealed if they work with another person or in another group. These individuals fear attention or recognition of any kind, they believe it will expose them as an imposter. On the other hand, leaders tend to be more prone to overconfidence. It's actually those most seasoned professionals that need to watch out for the Dunning-Kruger effect.

5 Procrastinating imposters

People who are procrastinating imposters may be viewed as lazy or passive. However, they tend to avoid being go-getters out of fear. These individuals fear failure, as many of us do. This fear of failure can be debilitating and can stunt their career growth. They may miss out on job opportunities or new experiences as they would view every opportunity as a chance to fail and expose themselves as an “imposter.” These individuals may resent being recognized for their achievements since they worry they are not worthy of success. On the other side of the spectrum, overconfidence leads to taking more risks. The Dunning-Kruger effect may lead to more opportunities for recognition, but can also lead to greater disasters as well.

Research is still being conducted to explore the different dimensions and facets of imposter syndrome. These categories are not diagnostic criteria or tools. Rather, they are helpful insights for people to recognize whether they have imposter syndrome. As mentioned above, awareness of imposter syndrome is quite meager, so many people will often suffer from it without even realizing it. Without recognition or awareness, imposter syndrome can be incredibly daunting and overwhelming (Arleo et al., 2021; Rakestraw, 2017).

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5 R's to deal with imposter syndrome

There are many different ways to overcome imposter syndrome. Some may turn to professional help (e.g. counseling) while others may utilize mindfulness meditation as a means to cope. At the core of many of these imposter syndrome interventions are 5 fundamentals steps: recognition, rationalizing, reframing, readying, and repeat (Arleo et al., 2021).

1 Recognize your imposter syndrome

As with most things, recognizing you have a problem or an obstacle is the first step in overcoming it. When you are in the midst of the overwhelming feelings of self-doubt and fraudulence, it can be difficult to take a step back and identify your feelings as those of imposter syndrome. When you begin to experience feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt, ask yourself, “what is causing these feelings?” (Arleo et al., 2021) For example, in self therapy app LIFE Intelligence, you can use problem-solving strategies such as the “5-why’s exercise” to get to the root of your self-doubt. 

2 Rationalizing your successes 

Begin by acknowledging your achievements and successes that led you to where you are today. For example, you just received a promotion and you instantly think, “I don’t deserve this, I don’t have many accomplishments or have enough experience to deserve this promotion.” Instead of these negative thoughts, try to rationalize the situation. Such as “I got this promotion because my supervisors see my competency and hard work even though I cannot see it right now.” This step is greatly related to the next stage.

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3 Reframing your thoughts with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Much like the step above, reframing is all about altering your perception of situations and yourself. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy says that the reality we experience is mainly due to our thoughts, which generate feelings, which generate behaviors. Continuing with the example of a job promotion, try to catch thoughts that seem distorted, such as “all-or-nothing” thinking. This type of cognitive distortion makes you think of yourself either as a success or a total failure (and, in the case of imposter syndrome, it’s mainly the latter). Rather, retrain that thought into something more in the middle, celebrating your wins along with your losses. Again, CBT therapy apps such as LIFE Intelligence can help you practice cognitive behavioral therapy on the go. 

4 Readying yourself

This may be the most difficult part, however, readying yourself is to let go of those thoughts of self-doubt and fraudulence. Again, not easy at all. With the example of the job promotion, you would begin by confronting negative thoughts. Maybe you combat these negative thoughts by gently reminding yourself that you are more than capable and ready for the promotion. Or perhaps you begin a journaling practice to help you sort through your negative thoughts.

5 Repeat when necessary

Unfortunately, imposter syndrome never goes away completely. It may go away for weeks, months, or years, but it will almost always return. With this in mind, you can prepare yourself. Write down these 5 Rs, talk to someone who has also experienced imposter syndrome (e.g. a mentor or advisor), or find a coping mechanism that is appropriate for you. Identify future situations where you may feel like an imposter (e.g. annual conferences) and keep these 5 Rs on-hand so you are prepared to combat IS.

It is important to note that this is not a comprehensive list of coping strategies. Rather, a starting point for combatting and managing imposter syndrome. The list of methods to overcome imposter syndrome is long and can vary from culture to culture and person to person. However, as mentioned above, these key points are typically at the core of every imposter syndrome intervention (Arelo et al., 2021).

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Self-awareness is the first step

It can be a bit confusing. Too much self-assurance can lead to the Dunning-Kruger effect. On the flip side, too much self-criticism can lead to imposter syndrome. While both imposter syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger effect are not official mental disorders, they are comorbid with other serious mental disorders (e.g. narcissism on one end, anxiety on the other). Having the self-awareness to recognize imposter syndrome or the Dunning-Kruger effect in yourself or others is the most important step in overcoming these syndromes.

Imposter syndrome is debilitating and overwhelming. It can easily lead to anxiety, depression, and burnout (Arleo et al., 2021; Baumann et al., 2020; Armstrong & Shulman, 2019). It can take hold of your well-being, career, and relationships. On the other hand, overconfidence and rashness can also lead you to make rash mistakes. That is where LIFE Intelligence comes in: a self therapy app to help you develop self-awareness. A self-development journey with 9 Missions (topics), LIFE helps you navigate through obstacles in your mind, career, and relationships. Whether it be learning to improve self-esteem (Missions 6.6 - 6.7) or to become a better communicator (Missions 8.1 - 8.5), LIFE Intelligence is here to help you understand yourself clearly, grow and overcome imposter syndrome.

Mason Low
February 5, 2021

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Armstrong, Melissa J, & Shulman, Lisa M. (2019). Tackling the imposter phenomenon to advance women in neurology. Neurology. Clinical Practice, 9(2), 155–159. https://doi.org/10.1212/CPJ.0000000000000607

Baumann, N., Faulk, C., Vanderlan, J., Chen, J., & Bhayani, R. K. (2020). Small-Group Discussion Sessions on Imposter Syndrome. MedEdPORTAL: The Journal of Teaching and Learning Resources, 16, 11004. https://doi.org/10.15766/mep_2374-8265.11004

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Rakestraw, L. (2017). How to Stop Feeling Like a Phony in Your Library: Recognizing the Causes of the Imposter Syndrome, and How to Put a Stop to the Cycle. Law Library Journal, 109(3), 465.

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Schlösser, T., Dunning, D., Johnson, K. L., & Kruger, J. (2013). How unaware are the unskilled? Empirical tests of the “signal extraction” counterexplanation for the Dunning–Kruger effect in self-evaluation of performance. Journal of Economic Psychology, 39, 85–100. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joep.2013.07.004

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