How to Avoid the Dunning-Kruger Effect — and Save the Planet

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We all know that person who thinks they're great at something, only to reveal their own incompetence later. That overconfident boss, that self-inflated musician, or that "genius" in your creative writing class are all operating under a single cognitive bias: the Dunning-Kruger effect. It's easy to point and laugh at people who overestimate their own excellence when it's obvious. It's likely we're all suffering the same delusion, though.

Psychologists at the University of Gothenburg have just released a study of more than 4,000 people in Sweden, the United States, England, and India, asking whether participants thought they were more environmentally conscious and active than other people they knew. You might expect a normal distribution of self-evaluations, with a healthy average and some outliers on either end of the curve. Instead, when comparing themselves to both their friends and to strangers, a majority of respondents claimed they were better than everyone else at being environmentally friendly.

This isn't too surprising, especially when things like "going green" or "sustainability" have become enticing marketing terms. But there's a real danger in this kind of over-optimism, which is that people think they're doing enough and stop trying to do more. Specifically related to climate change and the environment, it's true that most of the damage that's putting us all in danger comes from big corporations and systemic injustices. However, it's still important to find more ways on an individual level to support ethical and sustainable buying and spending — not least so it becomes normal, rather than special.

"If you think about it logically, the majority cannot be more environmentally friendly than others," said study author Magnus Bergquist. "One way to change this faulty opinion is to inform people that others actually behave environmentally friendly, and thereby creating an environmentally friendly norm."