This is a question generally in decision making.

Is a balance between the Dunning-Kruger effect and the impostor syndrome possible for students? As a student one is generally graded on a regular basis, the marks may vary however, depending on the professor (at least where I come from). Is there a strategy to avoid the aforementioned two extremes or is academic life a balance act between both - occasionally hitting one or the other.

I'll give an example specific to my case: I have to decide whether to take a M.Sc. thesis in theoretical physics which will require me to do a lot of mathematics. It's interesting and I have passed math exams geared to physicists with (very) good marks, same for the lecture in physics which would be vital in this case. Alas! Due to the (perceived) variation in the level of the exams I am not sure whether my knowledge is actually sufficiently deep to try. Especially as the real math (mathematics for mathematicians) results are not so good.

Simply: evaluations suggest "yes" while my gut tells me "meh I think you may be overestimating yourself a bit." (though my mind then responds "f*ck it all, do it just to prove you can!")

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    Is a balance possible? Sure. But what you actually want is to avoid them both. Impostor Syndrome and Dunning-Kruger both start from a lack of self-awareness and an exaggerated fear of failure. The bitter truth is that neither you nor anyone else knows whether you can get an MS in theoretical physics. The only way to find out is to try.
    – JeffE
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 15:00
  • I think pursuing an advanced degree in physics is beneficial whether you are good at it or not. Instead of considering how well you will perform, consider what you can do to increase the benefit of the opportunity to yourself or to society. Commented May 22, 2015 at 23:00
  • niveau -> level
    – Eric
    Commented May 23, 2015 at 3:06
  • @Eric: thanks, fixed it (brain-bug on my part). anon-phys: increasing benefit to oneself: sure. To others: that's altruism and I think it should be avoided at all costs.
    – Nox
    Commented May 23, 2015 at 10:45
  • You should also consider that the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect does not exist. See for example en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect/…
    – hkBst
    Commented Dec 31, 2018 at 8:43

1 Answer 1


A very important fact to be aware of is that Dunning-Kruger is a a cognitive bias that is about skill, not intelligence or ability/capacity to learn. So for instance a person who is a terrible driver may not know they are so bad because of Dunning-Kruger, but none of this tells us absolutely anything about their ability to improve their driving skills with practice and dedicated effort. The Dunning-Kruger effect on the unskilled makes it harder for a person to become aware of their shortcomings, but it says nothing about what happens when they realize they do in fact lack skill! On the other hand, the effect on the skilled is that they falsely believe that what is easy for them is - or should be - easy for others too.

The Impostor syndrome, by contrast, is about how a person assigns causation/responsibility to their own achievements and abilities. A person with Impostor syndrome doesn't say, "I'm at least above-average", unlike the unskilled person under the effects of the Dunning-Kruger bias (who doesn't necessarily think they are great, but just believes they are above average). Nor does the highly skilled person with Impostor-symptoms say "this is just easy, anyone can do this" - because that would actually be acknowledging they are in fact good at something other than fooling people into thinking they are good at something! No, the Impostor thinks everyone else is wrong in thinking they are good or intelligent or did something great.

So while both poles of the Dunning-Kruger bias and the Impostor syndrome are commonly experienced in academia, they don't actually exist on a single continuum where one is forced to try to balance between them. Therefore you actually have the possibility to live relatively free of both of them.

How do you do that?

Um....I'm not sure that I know?

...well, I suppose the best place to start is taking some time regularly to expand your circle and be around a variety of people. Volunteer in community programs (not merely academic ones!), spend some time on a sport, etc. In short, don't spend 100% of your time with students and professors, because you will get a warped sense of what everyone else in the world is really like and you'll tend to get some really unrealistic self-images going. It's the intellectual equivalent of getting your idea of normal physical appearance from fashion/exercise magazines and television. You don't want to get your perceptions all pretzel-like, basically.

There are also specific things you can do - like if you think you are just an idiot and you are just fooling everyone, read some YouTube comments for awhile; if you don't get the feeling that you are actually smarter and more reasonable than a lot of people in the world, seek immediate professional counseling because that's a real problem.

You can also develop some strategies for "sanity checking". For instance, you have taken previous classes and did well, but I'm guessing some of those classes weren't easy and you could have done better in some. Based upon the available evidence, doing a thesis as you propose probably won't be easy. There is also no evidence that you aren't capable of it at all - otherwise you'd have failed all those other classes. Chances are, at your level of math there are no free points for putting your name on the paper - if you got a score higher than 0, you know an awful lot more than you realize.

So you face a challenge - or a threat - depending on how you look at it. If you are interested and excited and don't feel it's a ridiculous impossibility (like, say, being drafted by the NBA) then you have a potentially interesting challenge. Can you do it? It's a distinct possibility, sure.

So now I'd advise the usual general decision-making strategies - pros and cons, risks and Plan Bs if things aren't working out, etc. In short, what you can try to balance is between the extremes of mindless confidence (Leroy Jenkins!!!!!) and constant impending doom (I am so screwed...). And I think that is pretty much just the challenge of life in a nutshell, so if you can master it before you die (or maybe just within a few thousand lifetimes) you'll have done something pretty darn amazing.

  • Thanks for the clarification! It seems I had a garbled understanding of both. The idea about getting a warped understanding of the world whilst being with professors did not really cross my mind. In retrospective I completely agree with your suggestion. Thanks for the "Plan B" suggestion, too. I haven't thought of making those - in all the 6 weeks of long decision-making walks. Also: no threats - only different levels of challenges.
    – Nox
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 21:19
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    Learning is also a skill that can be improved with practice and dedicated effort. Arguably, so is "intelligence".
    – JeffE
    Commented May 23, 2015 at 13:06
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    Nor does the highly skilled person with Impostor-symptoms say "this is just easy, anyone can do this" — Actually, they do say that. Being good at something easy doesn't count as actually being good at something.
    – JeffE
    Commented May 23, 2015 at 13:12
  • refering again to wiki. The description there permits a "third person" interpretation. To be precise: "[...] dismissed as luck (having done more drill-exercises and having one or two very similar in the exam), timing(similar exams bunched together), or as a result of deceiving others (ta/examiner, rather subjective) [...]" (my additions). Specifying "everybody" as others strengthens the condition. I agree w. JeffE on the "easy" part. I've seen people fail en-masse in exams I thought were easy - I could never understand why they couldn't make it.
    – Nox
    Commented May 25, 2015 at 20:16

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