​Can You Spot the Impostor Syndrome, or the Dunning-Kruger Effect in Action?

Do you feel not good enough, even though you're constantly being told you are? Or do you know somebody who thinks they're incredible, and they really aren't!

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Do you know someone who thinks they are always right, even though you can literally prove they are wrong?

Have you ever come in to contact with people that even facts, evidence, and logic will not budge them from their point of view? You can show them that you said something to them, as you have the text to prove it, and yet they still deny the fact.

You can prove someone is not telling you the truth because you have an email that proves they have lied and yet still they deny it. ‘Alternative facts’ some might call it nowadays.

These tend to be people who are illogically overly self-confident individuals who don’t necessarily have the actual knowledge of what they are talking about, or whose cognitive processing skills lack the ability to process the factual evidential information. 

This is a scientific phenomenon called the 'Dunning-Kruger Effect'.

Research shows that when people were asked to state how they felt they had done on a number of tests, those who performed badly almost always assumed they had done much better, where as those who did well invariably assumed they’d done worse.

Thus it was seen that certain types of people lack the ability to know they are bad at something. So, when you see someone singing way off-key at the X-Factor auditions, and they become extremely shocked and offended when Simon Cowell tells them they can’t actually sing in tune, you know they are experiencing the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

But why is this so?

Contrary to what you might think, these people are not confident at all. It is in fact thought that these people have a lack of confidence and lack a strong sense of self, unsure of who they really are. 

This means they always need to look outside of themselves for validation and thus need to suppress anything that might lead to a negative opinion of themselves, because it is too intolerable and anxiety provoking. 

To maintain this position, they block any recognition of others superior abilities, knowledge, or even actual facts. Our brains are wired to stop us feeling socially inadequate, so if we don’t sit comfortably in ourselves then we will be hyper-sensitive and over value other people’s thoughts and opinions about us.

Some people may withdraw from the world and suffer from crippling social anxiety, while others will present themselves as overly self-confident and always right, no matter what. This is the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Impostor Syndrome: The other end of the scale

Have you ever come across people who deny they have much skill or abilities, even though they have a Master’s degree, Doctoral degree, are accredited by a revered professional body, or who have a highly valued and prestigious position in their field? 

This is the psychological phenomenon called the 'Impostor Syndrome', where high achievers continually underestimate their abilities and achievements, even though they have the actual qualifications and achievements to back up their achievements. This phenomenon predominantly affects high achievers, and those with typically high levels of intelligence.

These people are considered intelligent because they are aware that they don’t know everything, that there are other points of view, and they have an awareness of how much there is to know about any given subject, which would leave them under confident.

Just before his death who said this? “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”

This was said by none other than Albert Einstein. Not exactly an underachiever, was he!

I hope this answers a few questions and helps you understand those overly self-confident people and under confident people, in terms of where they might be coming from, and why they might behave in the way that they do.  


Dr Sandra Westland

Sandra is a UKCP registered Existential Psychotherapist and Counsellor. She has nearing 20 years of experience as a therapist helping people through various difficulties. Her research interests include weight issues, body image, eating disorders and trauma. As an advanced practitioner of Inner Child Therapy, she works with trauma of various kinds experienced from childhood. Sandra teaches, lectures and runs workshops across Europe.