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The Curse of Ignorance


Explanations > Learning Theory > The Curse of Ignorance

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



The curse of ignorance happens where people do not know what they do not know, and so think they know everything.

The result may be tragedy or comedy, perhaps depending on your viewpoint, as the person acts and speaks as if they were an expert.

This also becomes a trap when they see others as having nothing to teach them.

People can suffer from the curse of ignorance in a few specific areas, or may be generally afflicted, with a tendency to assume superiority in a wide range of areas.




In any given topic, ignorance comes in several levels. First, people can realize that there are things to know that they do not know. Secondly, and where the curse happens, they can not know what they do not know. This creates an illusion where what they know seems to be all there is to know. In this way they seem, at least to themselves, to be knowledgeable and wise. To others who realize the truth, this may seem as crass stupidity or ridiculous arrogance.

At a third level, even when confronted with evidence of their ignorance and proof of things they do not know, they still cling to the illusion of full knowledge. This may be due to true ignorance or denial caused by the discomfort that would be felt if ignorance was admitted.

People may suffer from the curse of ignorance due to a genuine lack of intelligence. They may also fall into this way of thinking as a form of denial as they avoid the uncomfortable situation of appearing to be wrong, especially in social situations.

This is also called the 'Dunning–Kruger effect', after the research by Kruger and Dunning (1999), who noted that, for any given skill, incompetent people will:

  • Overestimate their own ability
  • Not recognize the real ability of others
  • Not realize how much they do not know
  • If successfully trained, will realize and acknowledge these errors

The curse of ignorance is a variant of illusory superiority, where people think they are better than they really are.

So what?

Check yourself that you know what you do not know. Be honest about this at least with yourself. When others show this trait you may decide whether to work with this, work around it or tackle it head on.

See also

Know What You Do Not Understand


Kruger, J. and Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77, 6, 1121–34


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