Disaster Threat and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Jeffrey Siems


Decision making is a cognitive process of selecting a course of action or belief among multiple alternative choices. Each decision results in a sequence of behaviors or activities the decider deems satisfactory, beneficial, or in her or his best interest.[1] However, disasters can create chaos, wickedness, and pressures of time or circumstance that bound a person’s decision-making capability.

Many poor decisions connected with threats are a result of cognitive bias.[2] One cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that, “People who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact.”[3] In addition, theory on the effect posits, “the same incompetence that leads them to make wrong choices also deprives them of the savvy necessary to recognize competence, be it their own or anyone else’s.”[4] Sometimes this results in an overconfidence of skills relative to capability.

As it is important for homeland security policy makers to understand how an individual processes a realized or perceived threat, this thesis investigates if indicators of Dunning-Kruger effects are present in individuals during disasters when choice is also available. It also offers future research opportunities to better understand how Dunning-Kruger effects influence disaster decision making.


This thesis answers the question, “Are there indications of Dunning-Kruger effects in individuals who encountered natural or human caused disasters?” Though this research specifically examines Dunning-Kruger indicators suggestive for the presence or absence of the effect, it does not measure the extent of the effect.


This research used qualitative research design to answer the research question. Two case studies were included as exemplars of significant disaster threat. Hurricane Katrina represented natural disaster and signified disaster with warning. The attacks on the World Trade Center exemplified human caused disaster and epitomized disaster without warning. In each case study, 30 transcripts of survivors were examined for indicators of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

A total of 12 indicators were chosen and coded into three domains (incompetence, lack of metacognition, and illusionary superiority). Every indicator need not be identified for the effect to be present. For the effect to be coded as present, at least one indicator in each domain must be identified. The procedure included the researcher reading the transcripts, making notes regarding first impressions, and checking to see if the case studies satisfy inclusion criteria. Next, words, phrases, sentences, or relevant sections were coded according to the 12 indicators. Finally, researcher collated and classified the data in a spreadsheet for analysis.


Decision making in the context of disaster has a multitude of factors influencing human behavior. Often, seemingly rational thought is constrained by the circumstances surrounding disaster and allows decisions to appear irrational, harmful, or iniquitous. This research confirms the presence of the Dunning-Kruger effect in both cases studied. While the extent of the effect’s impact was not measured, a high prevalence (73 percent) of survivors of natural disaster showed positive indicators of Dunning-Kruger effects. For human caused disaster, 47 percent of respondents met the established criteria for the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The cases studied also represent disaster with prior warning (natural) and disaster without warning (human caused). It is possible that Dunning-Kruger effects increase as prior warning increases; or with advanced warning, more people choose to evacuate, so the individuals remaining are the ones experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect. Additional research into this discovery is necessary to confirm this researches findings.

Another interesting outcome from the research was that respondents who self-identified as an authority also displayed indicators exhibiting Dunning-Kruger influences. What is not fully understood is if there is a correlation between individuals that self- identify as an authority and decision making influenced by the Dunning-Kruger theory. Further research is recommended; specifically, a prospective, quantitative research design focusing on policy decision makers measured against Dunning-Kruger effects. Establishing how the Dunning-Kruger cognitive bias influences individuals facing disasters will benefit homeland security professionals and benefit the planning, response, and recovery efforts to disasters.



[1] Robert Duncan Luce, “Rationality in Choice under Certainty and Uncertainty,” in Emerging Perspectives on Judgment and Decision Research, ed. Sandra L. Schneider and James Shanteau (Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 64–83.

[2] Committee on Measuring Human Capabilities: Performance Potential of Individuals and Collectives; Board on Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; National Research Council, Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2015), http://www.nap.edu/catalog/19017, 53.

[3] Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “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, no. 6 (1999): 1121–1134, doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121.

[4] Ibid.

No Comments

Post a Comment