American Idol logo

American Idol opening logo

Roughly 20 minutes into the Nashville auditions for American Idol, the Lovely Mrs McKay turned to me and said, “These people MUST know how awful they are.” “They don’t have a clue,” I sighed.

Have you noticed how often incompetent people are supremely confident? Not just auditioning for American Idol, but throughout life?

Professor Justin Kruger and graduate student David Dunning of Cornell University studied this effect in their 1999 paper, Unskilled and Unaware of It. Their conclusion: those who knew the least rated themselves most knowledgeable, and those who actually understood the topic were far less sure of themselves.

This result has been confirmed in multiple follow-up studies involving several skills and fields of expertise. It is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Which begs the question: why does this happen?

Answer: the basic skills and awareness needed for competency are exactly the same skills necessary to evaluate the competency.

Their lack of knowledge (incompetence) prevents them from recognizing their lack of knowledge (incompetence). People don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t even know where to look or how to look at it.

And it doesn’t dawn on them that skilled performers DO know this stuff, until they’re exposed, dramatically to their own ignorance. Until then, they delude their incompetent selves into illusions of confident competency.

If you’ve ever wondered how:

  • people who can’t articulate the issues, still feel confident casting their vote (or making inflammatory statements);
  • how people with no experience teaching, know exactly what’s wrong with our education system; and
  • how those who have never studied investing, can blithely plow their life savings into the real estate market

Incompetence leads people to make poor choices. Incompetence prevents them from realizing they make poor choices. This is the Dunning-Kruger Effect (DK). On the other end of the DK continuum, competent people tend to rate themselves lower than they should. Their internal voices seem to say, “Hey, everyone knows this.”

The dumb get confident; the intelligent get doubtful. And to a greater or lesser degree we’re all guilty.

How Biased Feedback Makes it Even Worse

Imagine a typical Friday nite in any typical neighborhood watering hole. The regular crowd shuffles in. One of them, Miss Karaoke Singer, is recognized by the rest as being the “best” in the club.

What kind of feedback does she get?

Do any of the other contestants tell her that her breath control is bad, her vibrato unnatural, or mention the odd affectation she’s developed? Hardly. They don’t know anything about nuanced performance. Since the only feedback she gets is positive, she thinks she’s good.

Good? No, FANTASTIC! The Dunning-Kruger effect helps her to believe she’s ready for American Idol!

Then comes the audition.

The judges tell her she’s a poor singer. Her own incompetence prevents her from understanding what they’re telling her. These judges must be stupid. After all, she just gave a great performance.

Se gets angry. Tells off the judges. Not because she’s defending herself. Not because she’s trying not to look bad in front of her supporters. But because she’s completely incapable of understanding just how bad she is.

Advertising That Doesn’t Work Probably Has More to Do With Dunning-Kruger Than Advertising

Much like our karaoke singer, every city has an advertiser who, rather than admit his advertising strategy and execution are flawed, convinces himself that advertising doesn’t work.

Does anyone in Mr. Businessman’s entourage tell him his ads have nothing substantive to say? That they don’t speak to the buyer in natural language, and instead just spew out ad clichés like “fast, friendly, service?” Does anyone tell him that putting his kid and his dog in the ad won’t convince anyone to buy things from him?

Or more technically, does anyone tell our businessman that his ads don’t have enough frequency to make an impact? That he’s using the wrong medium? That his competition has effectively co-opted his position?

No. His friends get a kick out of seeing him on TV, or in the paper, or on radio, and the only feedback Mr. Businessman gets is positive. He thinks he’s good.

Until he sees his sales figures. Plummeting or flat-lined sales force a confrontation with reality, and it’s the rare businessman indeed who doesn’t address his frustration and anger at advertising medium – or on advertising in general. Hence, the near-ubiquitous refrain of: “I tried advertising and it didn’t work.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Businessman, if he doesn’t want to follow Miss Karaoke Singer back to waiting tables, he still needs to get more customers. And fast!

How Small Clients Can Get the Best Ads And Grow to Become Big Companies

The thing about big fish / small pond business owners is, they often believe their success in one field translates to competency in almost everything else. Rather than leveraging the expertise of their ad man, they’ll bully him until they get the kind of ads they want – ads full of Dunning-Kruger-esque

But sometimes business owners who are genuinely good at what they do manage to overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect. They find a professional to bring to them the same hard-won competency and expertise they offer to their own customers.

Its much like what happens when a truly talented singer gets on American Idol: with the right direction and promotion, some dreams do come true.

What about you?

Are you an average karaoke singer? Or a true star in search of the right stage and the right spotlight?

Knowing which is critical when you’re fishing for customers.

Your Guide,
Chuck McKay

Marketing consultant Chuck McKayYour Fishing for Customers guide, Chuck McKay, gets people to buy more of what you sell.

Questions about finding your own right spotlight may be directed to Or, call him at 304-523-0163.