What is it called when experts think they only know a small part of a topic and amateurs think they know almost all of a topic?

  • 3
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 22, 2017 at 12:25
  • 1
    The question is unclear. Is this the same topic or two different topics? Is the topic the expert's field of expertise? E.g. a professor of physics (expert) might believe he knows nothing about football (a topic) and be correct in that self assessment. A lawyer who dabbles in jazz guitar (amateur) could believe she knows a lot about coffee (a topic) and also be right.
    – Kaz
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 0:10
  • 17
    StackOverflow. :p
    – cloudfeet
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 10:38
  • 4
    Respectively, humility and arrogance.
    – DonielF
    Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 0:09

9 Answers 9


Sounds like the Dunning–Kruger effect:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is. Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive incapacity, on the part of those with low ability, to recognize their ineptitude and evaluate their competence accurately. Their research also suggests corollaries: high-ability individuals may underestimate their relative competence and may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.—Wikipedia: Dunning–Kruger effect.

  • 4
    While I'm not sure that OP's word "amateur" and the Dunning-Kruger's word "low-ability" actually refer to the same people, I admit that it is tempting to connect them. I believe there is a difference between not having the ability to recognize incompetence and just not using that ability for reasons of pride or whatever. Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 11:52
  • 3
    @GuySchalnat It's not just that people with low-ability misjudge themselves as high-ability, it's goes the other way too. People with high-ability misjudge themselves to be low-ability and are often confused as to why others don't see how easy it is to do what they can do. Their results show that it's not that the case that people don't want to admit they have low skill. They truly believe that they are high-skilled and judge themselves to be more skilled than high-skilled people do.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 15:28
  • 9
    @GuySchalnat Maybe I'm not understanding but it seems like you are suggesting that the DK-effect only applies to a subset of the population and possibly that subset is somehow impaired. The original study was done on Cornell undergrads. I'm go out on a limb and suggest that students at an Ivy League school are not generally considered cognitively impaired by most people. In addition, the study found that this effect could be altered through teaching.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 19:41
  • 3
    As I've heard it used, the Dunning-Kruger effect only addresses one half of the OP's question.
    – Kimball
    Commented Apr 22, 2017 at 1:58
  • 3
    @Kimball No, it addresses both; it is just more commonly used for low-skilled individuals overestimating their ability, and less commonly used for high-skilled individuals underestimating their own ability. Partly because the latter situation is usually framed differently: "I can do X simply, so surely it is simple for others and therefore we are of comparable skill".
    – TylerH
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 18:31

when experts think they only know a small part of a topic

This sounds similar to Impostor Syndrome.

and amateurs think they know almost all of a topic?

As Laurel already mentioned, this is called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

  • 18
    Actually, the Dunning-Kruger effect encompasses both meanings. That is, in the absence of a benchmark, experts underestimate their ability and newcommers overestimate it. Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 19:46
  • 1
    @MatthieuM., furthermore, experts try to compensate for the Dunning-Kruger effect by recognizing they don't know as much as they think. :P
    – Wildcard
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 3:50
  • 2
    Imposter Syndrome only applies if the experts think they know less than they should, doesn't it? I thought it was just that experts believed there to be much more to know than what they already know, mostly ...
    – SamB
    Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 18:09
  • I think this answer is wrong, at least on the first part. Almost anyone in their area of expertise learns more, they gradually realize that the known unknowns accumulate faster than the known knowns (and that's not even including the unknown unknowns). It's only imposter syndrome if the expert thinks that they don't deserve their knowledge or that they're just "getting lucky" with impressing people.
    – forest
    Commented Apr 16, 2022 at 0:28

It's a simple case of "the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know", a famous quote ascribed to Albert Einstein.

"ascribed to Albert Einstein": 1 - 2 - 3 - 4


It's a case of "A little Learning is a dang'rous thing".

Quoting Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism:

A little Learning is a dang'rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Piërian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir'd at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind,
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But more advanc'd, behold with strange surprize
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleas'd at first the tow'ring Alps we try,
Mount o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky,
Th'eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last:
But those attain'd, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthen'd way,
Th'increasing prospect tires our wand'ring eyes,
Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

  • 4
    Oh, that's a great term for it!
    – SamB
    Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 18:15

The first part of your scenario is called a "Socratic Paradox", after a quote by Socrates (via his student Plato):

I know one thing; that I know nothing

It covers the experts thinking of their own knowledge minimally.


Well, as others have mentioned, the formal term for the illusion of competence among laypeople is the Dunning-Kreuger Effect. The world's best-educated experts on a topic tend to know how much they don't know, and so underestimate their competence, while those who don't get the true depth of the subject claim to be experts.

For a less technical term, you might consider the Armchair Expert, sometimes phrased as Armchair general or armchair quarterback, those people whose only expertise in a subject is what they see on TV, but who claim to have all the answers about nay subject.

  • 1
    Along with "armchair quarterback", I add, "back seat driver"
    – TOOGAM
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 3:03
  • See also "Monday morning quarterback".
    – Patrick B.
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 19:34
  • 2
    @PatrickB. I think "Monday morning quarterback" alludes to retrospective wisdom: "Hindsight is always 20/20". Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 15:05
  • @StoneyB true! I'd always associated it with a combination of retrospective wisdom and relative inexperience, but on looking around maybe that's just my own association.
    – Patrick B.
    Commented Apr 29, 2017 at 2:46

Here are a few more phrase-length expressions of the same sentiment:

W.B. Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.

Bertrand Russell

The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.

Charles Bukowski

The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.

Sources: here, and here

  • 7
    While this is a fun and well put together response it doesn't actually answer the question.
    – Yeshe
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 23:03
  • 1
    Actually, it does answer the question in a reasonable way. "What is it called" is poorly formulated because there isn't a single official expression, there are a variety of ways of expressing the idea.
    – Jim Balter
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 10:11
  • I guess the W.B. Yeats quote, divorced from its context, can be taken as an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. However, the lack of conviction of the "best" doesn't describe their caution, but instead describes their total apathy.
    – lll
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 21:03

You have very good answers here, particularly "the Dunning-Kruger effect."

You may also be interested in the phrase "unconscious incompetence", which describes someone who is unaware of their lack of a particular skill.

There's also "engineer's disease", where an individual fallaciously assumes their expertise in one area translates to another, unrelated area, and and "Nobel disease" or nobelitis, which refers to an individual who is highly recognized in one field using their reputation to bolster crankery, usually on an unrelated topic in which they lack expertise.

  • From the web page you referenced it appears there is no single accepted definition of "engineer's disease". And while ONE of the descriptions of "engineer's disease" agrees with the one you've cited, "Nobel disease" is quite different ("Nobel disease" being the perceived tendency of Nobel laureates to fall prey to a fascination with crank causes and fallacious science in their later years. Frankly I think this is more an effect of aging than of having been awarded a Nobel prize, and that anyone in any area of endeavor can develop this). Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 11:30
  • Other sources support the idea that the phrase "Nobel disease" refers to extension beyond a Nobelist's area of expertise, but I've made the definition more precise anyway. As far as "engineer's disease" goes, the website I referenced does note that the phrase has been used to mean different things, particularly in the past, but also provides numerous citations for the use I gave here. Words and phrases commonly have multiple meanings, none of which are made less legitimate by the existence of the others.
    – Patrick B.
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 17:10

Some experts deliberately cultivate a beginner's mind, in the Zen Buddhism sense.

Shoshin (Japanese: 初心) is a concept from Zen Buddhism meaning beginner's mind. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying, even at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. The term is especially used in the study of Zen Buddhism and Japanese martial arts, and was popularized outside of Japan by Shunryū Suzuki's 1970 book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.

The practice of shoshin acts as a counter to the hubris and closed-mindedness often associated with thinking of oneself as an expert. This includes the Einstellung effect, where a person becomes so accustomed to a certain way of doing things that they do not consider or acknowledge new ideas or approaches. The word shoshin is a combination of sho (Japanese: 初), meaning "beginner" or "initial", and shin (Japanese: 心), meaning "mind".

PS. In the quote I've highlighted some parts that seemed most relevant.