Axioms of Comedy: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect is the funniest of the cognitive biases. It describes a phenomenon in which the incompetent labor under an illusory superiority because they lack the capacity to accurately assess their performance relative to others. In layman’s terms: Dumb people don’t know they’re dumb and in fact think they’re smarter than you.

The concept was formally postulated in 1999 by a pair of researchers at Cornell, but its basic truth has been observed by such great minds as William Shakespeare (“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”) and Charles Darwin (“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”) Dunning and Kruger arrived at their conclusions by having undergraduates self-assess their performances in tests of logic, grammar and humor. They found that participants who scored at the bottom ranked themselves much higher, while the highest-performing subjects regularly underestimated their rankings.

After its publication, the Dunning-Kruger effect became a pop psychology sensation to rival the Peter Principle. It has been used to explain the Housing Market Crash of 2008, the botched planning for the Invasion of Iraq and the entire presidency of George W. Bush. For eight long years, the world watched in horror as the leader of the free world struggled to utter a single extemporaneously coherent thought, culminating in the ultimate Bushism:

The Dunning-Kruger effect can be ugly, even deadly, when it affects the real world (cf Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, etc.). But it’s also the source of some the greatest comedy of all time: dumb-but-cocksure icons like Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau or Steve Martin as The Jerk. The Bush Era spawned a Golden Age of the Dunning-Kruger antihero: Steve Carell as Michael Scott, Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope. Stephen Colbert crafted his “high status idiot” character as a response to the ascendance of out-of-their-depth conservative blowhards like Bill O’Reilly and Sarah Palin. Practically every Will Ferrell character of the past decade exhibits the Dunning-Kruger effect, including his beloved, nationally cathartic impersonation of Bush.

Why is the Hyperconfident Fool so funny? It’s linked to the German concept of fremdscham, the embarrassment felt vicariously for others, especially those so ignorant they’re unaware that they should be embarrassed for themselves. Fremdscham is a corollary to Dunning-Kruger, and it’s a staple of mockumentary-style, post-laugh-track television. It’s called “cringe humor,” and its comedy derives from the way reality is processed by the inept. 

There is no greater home for Dunning-Kruger than the arts. The inherent subjectivity of the creative disciplines presents a vast playground for the illusorily superior. It’s a longstanding trope in standup that the worst comics are the ones printing up business cards after their third open mic and planning their first DVD taping six months in. So much of standup is about believing in yourself and “selling” your material that it naturally attracts the most unduly self-confident.

An equally crucial part of standup is the ability to assess and adapt to the audience’s reaction. In standup we have another name for the Dunning-Kruger effect. We call it “the ears.” This term of art is used to describe a comic who is incapable of recognizing how poorly he or she is doing. A comic with ”the ears” bombs regularly but walks offstage each time thinking he killed. A few isolated pity laughs are all a comic with “the ears” needs to convince himself that he crushed.

Standup comedy is a magnet for the delusional, in part because everyone assumes they have a good sense of humor. Few believe they could flawlessly interpret a violin concerto but nearly everyone thinks they know how to tell a joke or recognize good comedy when they see it. This is why hecklers, the most un-self-aware people in the world, regularly insist that they were “just helping the show.” They believe their own comedic expertise trumps that of the professional practitioner onstage.  

The Dunning-Kruger effect is excruciating to behold: This guy really thinks he’s funny? But it’s also reassuring. In an industry that offers few clear paths for advancement, self-doubt is as crucial a tool for success as bravado. In comedy, anxiety and neurosis are the keys to the kingdom. If you’ve ever asked yourself if you’ve got Dunning-Kruger, you probably don’t.

Comics have their own ways of enforcing this essential self-doubt among their colleagues. A comic walks offstage after a room-exploding killer set, basking in the dopamine afterglow of a boffo performance. One of his pals sidles up to him at the back of the room and says with a smirk, “Where do you think you lost ‘em?” 

We need your help! City Arts is becoming independent—and we need your support to make the transition. Join The NEW City Arts as a Founding Member today to secure the next chapter of the magazine you love! » LEARN MORE