An ‘Equality Bias’ Could Impede Ability to Assess Competence

man with feet propped on deskThink you’re a good judge of your own competence? Think again. A mountain of research suggests that people are remarkably bad at judging themselves. The Dunning-Kruger effect is the tendency of unskilled people to overestimate their competence while highly skilled people underestimate their own competence. The research that uncovered this cognitive bias suggests that incompetent people don’t know enough to know what they don’t know, while competent people are keenly aware of the knowledge they lack.

A small study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that we’re no better at assessing competence in group settings. A bias in favor of equality may be to blame.

Do People Have an Equality Bias?

Researchers suspected that group members may have a bias in favor of viewing all group members as equally competent. They put 98 men from Iran, Denmark, and China into pairs, then had them complete visual tasks.

The researchers then separated each man from his partner, then asked each participant to look at a screen for two intervals, identifying when a target mark appeared. The men then had to tell researchers whether the target appeared during the first or second interval. Researchers asked each man to indicate how confident he was in his assessment. Each man’s partner completed the same task. If the pair disagreed about when the target appeared, one member of the pair was randomly asked to make the final decision. Researchers repeated this process 256 times with each pair.

Participants judged as “competent” were right 70% of the time. These participants, though, were more likely to accept the judgment of a less competent partner. Logically speaking, it would make sense for competent partners to accept their partner’s judgment 30% of the time. Instead, competent people were more likely to accept a less competent partner’s judgment almost half of the time.

Participants who were less competent got the answer right only 30% of the time, but were more likely to trust their own competence. They went with the more competent partner’s choice about half the time. The study’s authors argue that this constitutes a bias in favor of equality. Participants mistakenly believe that their partners are about as competent as they are. This persisted even in the face of contrary evidence. When researchers showed each member of the pair how they and their partners performed, participants did not change their assessments.

The study’s authors suggest that their research sheds light on group decision-making. When working in groups, people mistakenly believe that each group member’s contribution is equally valid, even when some members are clearly more competent than others.


  1. Assumptions of equality could hinder group decision-making ability. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  2. Dunning-Kruger effect: Why people remain incompetent. (2012, June 10). Retrieved from

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  • Kenna


    March 11th, 2015 at 1:46 PM

    lol the people who always think that they are good at everything rarely are

  • Jake


    March 12th, 2015 at 12:14 PM

    OK I am confused- can you clarify why the competent people are accepting the judgement of others who are actually less competent than what they are?

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