Running with the Dunning Effect

By James Patrick Holding

Perhaps one of the most endearing characters in television history is Ted Baxter from the 1970s sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Played by actor Ted Knight, Baxter was a news anchorman with an excellent voice, a handsome face, and little else to commend him to his job. He was best known for hilarious mispronunciations during his news broadcasts, and for believing himself to be one of the greatest anchormen on the airwaves. His self-confidence was symbolized by his dressing room, which he set up as a veritable shrine to himself, the walls filled with his own pictures and reputed awards. The interplay between the egotistical Baxter and the more sensible members of the news staff was a constant source of humor for the program.

Baxter’s inflated assessment of his own abilities offers a fictional example of a real-life behavioral condition called the Dunning Effect. In 1999, David Dunning, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, and Justin Kruger, a graduate student, completed a study for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that led to a disturbing conclusion: like the fictional Ted Baxter, most incompetent people are unaware of their own incompetence, often blissfully, and possess an unwarranted assurance in their own capabilities and knowledge.

Dunning and Kruger focused their study specifically on their subjects’ competence in logic, grammar, and humor, but it does not take a great deal of experience in Christian apologetics and evangelism to discover that the Dunning Effect is prevalent in religion and spirituality as well. As apologists, we often will find ourselves in conversation with people who suffer from the Dunning Effect, and if we are not prepared for these encounters, they can become frustrating or difficult experiences.

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Dunning Effects. It is quite normal for someone to assert an incorrect position confidently on a given topic. A person who does this merely occasionally is not necessarily afflicted with the Dunning Effect. The Dunning Effect only becomes apparent when someone makes incorrect assertions repeatedly, and substantive corrections do not erode his or her confidence. The Dunning Effect also may be detected by a question such as, “Do you consider yourself to be knowledgeable about this subject?” A person who confidently answers this question in the affirmative, yet repeatedly makes considerable errors regarding the subject matter may be a victim of the Dunning Effect.

Here is an example based on a real-life encounter of mine. Let us suppose that our conversation partners declare without hesitation that the Roman Emperor Constantine (AD 272–337) was at the head of a massive conspiracy to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, using his military power to persuade others to his views. Ideas like this can be found in a number of popular sources that are antithetical to Christian belief, such as Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code. Let us assume that you investigate this matter and find that it is false. You research credible sources such as Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church or Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity, and find no evidence for the claim that Constantine manipulated church history.

You return to inform your conversation partners of your findings. They assure you, however, that they have done a great deal of research and will not retract their conclusion. Frustrated, you inquire as to their sources for their claim, and find out that they include works such as Brown’s The Da Vinci Code!

In cases like this, your conversation partners may have unwarranted confidence in their abilities…

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Running with the Dunning Effect | Christian Research Institute