Being a Victim of Illusory Superiority?

I have a life motto that I put on my beBee profile page:

The more I learn, the more I realise there’s still so much more to learn.

That is why I am a lifelong learner.

It is the same for many people who are aware of the gaps in their knowledge, and they want to fill in those gaps. But what about those who lack this awareness and whose ignorance makes it difficult to assess their own performance and knowledge?

Charles Darwin said it best:

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.

The world is full of unskilled and incompetent people who have a better opinion of themselves than they should. They lack knowledge and skills, but their confidence far exceeds their abilities resulting in inflated self-assessments.

Inability to recognise own ignorance/incompetence and the resulting overconfidence is a cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Some research also suggests that overconfidence is strongly linked with narcissism and feeling powerful. That combination can be quite harmful, especially when action and words have consequences, as with events that happened recently in the USA. The former President was called the Dunning-Kruger president.

In essence, the less competent you are, the more confident you will be in your abilities. On the other hand, capable people who have experience and skills are often unduly modest or even feel inadequate when compared with others.

The above confidence/knowledge curve nicely shows the boost of confidence after learning just a little about a particular subject. Reaching that peak, many assume they know quite enough, if not all, about a subject to have no reason to explore it further, and they remain stuck at the level of high confidence but little knowledge. Those who continue to increase knowledge soon realise how little they know and their confidence falls down. Then, as their knowledge and experience increase, their confidence grows again.

Being confident is considered to be one of the most important qualities we can have. We instill confidence in our kids, teaching them they can be anything they want. It is a key driver to success in life and work. A lack of confidence is usually seen as a problem and can affect our career. Therefore, many compensate for the lack of knowledge and skills by looking overconfident. I have always admired people who are overly confident in their skills, even if they have little to show for it. I used to think it takes a great deal of courage to do that. Actually, it is not about courage, it is a cognitive bias.

Humans, in general, tend to overestimate their abilities and knowledge. The truth is each one of us is ignorant in a whole range of areas of knowledge, but most of us have the capacity to learn and gain knowledge and skills over time to become more competent. The “only” problem is how to overcome the misleading assessment of our skills and intellect and have a more realistic view of ourselves. If it were easy, there would be no problem with most human biases.

To have skills and knowledge in a particular area can create false confidence that we are good at everything else – like trying to swim across the English Channel after winning a 200 m swim race. Recognizing our areas of weakness and limitations of our abilities is the first step.

Incompetent, overconfident people are at all levels of governments, public institutions, and positions of responsibility in many companies. Not only in my part of the world but everywhere, and in all fields. Many of them are self-proclaimed experts whose failure to admit their knowledge gaps could easily lead to devastating consequences – in the field of medicine and pharma for example.

I met unskilled and overconfident people on some of the construction projects I was involved in, even project managers. A little expertise (knowledge) combined with overconfidence and arrogance can be harmful when resulting in risky decisions. A little knowledge indeed can be a dangerous thing.

In fact, all of us could fall victims to that illusory superiority and not be aware of it, no matter being an expert or beginner in any subject.

To be humbled about ourselves is one of the hardest traits to develop. In finding a balance between confidence and humility, I sometimes slip toward the self-deprecation side (there is a fine line between being humble and self-deprecating).

Learning more beyond superficial understanding will give us a more realistic level of confidence. Continuous learning throughout life gives a feeling of fulfillment, which in turn boosts confidence in our own capabilities. Also, lifelong learning is necessary for improving critical thinking skills. In my opinion, when you have the knowledge and think critically, you think for yourself and do not follow blindly. I have been told I question (almost) everything, but it is a necessity in today’s data-driven world and information chaos.

To become aware of your actual competence, always question what you know, stay curious, and consider well-intentioned criticism and constructive feedback. It is not easy to hear that you are not good at something, but from my experience, it really helps in lowering your ego. And above all, do not be afraid to admit your ignorance to yourself and take every opportunity to keep learning.

Nowadays, knowledge is at our fingertips. 


Lada Prkić
Lada Prkić
Lada Prkić is a Civil Engineer and has a lot of professional experience in various fields of Civil Engineering. She works at the University of Split on the capital construction projects at the University Campus and beyond. Besides performing responsible tasks as a Project Manager, and Head of Capital Investment Office, Lada became passionate about blogging. She writes about civil engineering, architecture, geometry, networks on social media, and human relations. Lada lives with her family in Split, Croatia, a beautiful 2,000 years old city on the coast of the Adriatic sea.

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  1. Fascinating insights Lada, especially this statement here: “The world is full of unskilled and incompetent people who have a better opinion of themselves than they should.” I’d say many of those people described here end up in government, and that’s precisely why our world is such a mess. Sarcasm aside, I think each individual grows into a particular mindset of confidence and/or intelligence. This capacity is obviously different from one individual to the next, but as you suggested, we all have gaping areas of ignorance. No single person will ever achieve ALL knowledge in the universe. The best we can do is identify our strengths and nurture what we are drawn to most. For some it’s math, others it’s science, and for some it’s working in government to corrupt humanity. Everyone has a purpose and role, even those who are ignorant or nefarious. In a given lifetime, upon our final breath, the only thing we can do is look back and see if the small fingerprint we left on the world was clear… or if it was smudged by our lack of self-awareness. Wishing you the best my friend…

    • Aaron, thank you so much for commenting on the post directly. I see that people mostly comment on the shared articles on LinkedIn but rarely on the author’s site.
      You made me think about your words: “Everyone has a purpose and role, even those who are ignorant or nefarious.”
      We are all different because of different backgrounds, levels of knowledge, and experiences that shape our biased perceptions. The environment in which we grow has an essential role in it. Many are ignorant because of a lack of access to knowledge. Others are ignorant because of a lack of self-awareness, but the worst kind of ignorance is willful ignorance or being ignorant by choice.
      Maybe ignorance exists with the purpose. After all, we all come into the world ignorant.
      All the best to you, as well, my friend.