The American Idol Effect

There’s nothing more comforting to the sick than having a diagnosis, a name that we can attach to what ails us. It’s especially heartening to be able to identify by name an illness that plagues a very large number of Americans.


The Dunning-Kruger effect, while not exactly an illness, is especially pernicious in that those who have it are blissfully unaware, while others around them are made to suffer. According to the entry in Wikipedia, the Dunning-Kruger effect is “the phenomenon whereby people who have little knowledge systematically think that they know more than others who have much more knowledge.”

Millions of people have witnessed a corollary phenomenon, one that I like to call the American Idol Effect, in which people who have little or no singing ability systematically think that they are destined for musical stardom. But here is the thing I don’t quite understand: What is it that makes millions of people want to watch these hopelessly un-self-aware people embarrass themselves on national television? Is it our fascination with the grotesque, or is something else at play?

If you’re interested in the research, you can download the original article, Unskilled and Unaware of It (500KB PDF), written by Justin Kruger and David Dunning and published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Actually, the article’s abstract suggests that the Dunning-Kruger Effect applies to more than knowledge (as the Wikipedia article claims):

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.

(emphasis added)

It’s a funny thing, this human nature.

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2 Responses to The American Idol Effect

  1. Amanda Rebuck says:

    Things that are posted on a site called should be edited thoroughly before posting.

  2. Karl says:

    Hi Amanda, I’m guessing you were referring to my omission of the word “it” in this sentence: “What is it that makes millions of people want to watch these hopelessly un-self-aware people embarrass themselves on national television?” It’s fixed now. If there is another error with the post, please let me know. You’re obviously a better copy editor than I am.

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