I'm not wrong, the test is: emotional intelligence vs denial

Friday, October 9, 2015 - 16:41

Guest post by AIM Senior Research Fellow Dr Sam Johnson

I like nonsense.  It wakes up the brain cells. - Dr Seuss

It is not enough to have a good mind.  The main thing is to use it well.’ - Descartes

Dr Seuss and Descartes lived centuries apart, yet they shared a similar philosophy.  Use your mind and your brain well. Wise words that are always worth reflection.

Do you use your mind and your brain well?  We all think we do, but are we right?

Research exposes some interesting human tendencies in regard to this.

Take the Dunning-Kruger effect, for example.  This is a fascinating body of psychological research that suggests that any of us can become trapped in what we don’t know, or in our lack of self-awareness.

A recent study had people self-assess against emotional intelligence (EI) capabilities.  They assessed themselves and were assessed by experts.  The results were compared. For the most part, people over estimated their own capabilities. 

They were then offered a financial incentive to reassess.  This time accurate self- assessment came with cash!  Some still over rated - and lost out on the money.

Who was most likely to over-estimate their EI? Those who performed the worst, over-estimated the most. You’ve seen this before? Here comes the real clincher – this is even more common amongst managers.  Good managers who may have good minds – but perhaps don’t use them as well as they could.

Here’s more bad news.  For some who regularly over assess, feedback about performance doesn’t seem to help.  Why is this so?

It could be the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The first signs of suffering from this ailment – apart from low performance and high self-assessment – include a tendency to be critical of the accuracy or relevance of feedback.  Either the feedback is incorrect, or doesn’t reflect their real abilities, or it doesn’t matter.

In this study, managers who showed this tendency rated themselves, on average, in the 77th percentile on EI performance.  In a formal assessment, their actual EI was identified at about the 36th percentile.   Those with the lowest EI showed the most inflated self-assessments. Ironic, isn’t it!

Those who were in the Dunning-Kruger camp, not surprisingly, rejected the feedback and suggested that the EI test was inaccurate – despite it being the most reliable EI test in the world.

So sure you’re not surprised by this?  The anecdotal evidence can be over whelming?

But now we have a name for it.  The Dunning-Kruger effect.

The definition of the Dunning-Kruger effect:  The very thing one lacks – in this instance, EI – is the very thing that one needs, to understand that they lack it, and that they need it. 

In other words, effective managers need just enough emotional intelligence to know that they need it and that it matters.  Those who lack EI, may be so lacking in it that they miss the fact that they lack it and that they need it. 

So if you know someone like this, is there hope for improvement?  Perhaps.  Here’s a tip to try.

Before feedback is given, seek agreement that the feedback is reliable, accurate and important.  With these issues addressed, you’re in a better position to have your Dunning-Kruger devotee reconsider their position. 

So not all is lost.   Get the feedback right, add some good professional development and help eliminate the Dunning-Kruger effect. That way we’ll have managers with good brains and kind minds.


Sheldon, Dunning & Ames. 2014. Emotionally Unskilled, unaware and uninterested in learning more: reactions to feedback about deficits in emotional intelligence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(1), 125-137.