Dunning-Kruger Effect in Trading & Finance

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Written By
Contributor Image
Written By
Dan Buckley
Dan Buckley is an US-based trader, consultant, and part-time writer with a background in macroeconomics and mathematical finance. He trades and writes about a variety of asset classes, including equities, fixed income, commodities, currencies, and interest rates. As a writer, his goal is to explain trading and finance concepts in levels of detail that could appeal to a range of audiences, from novice traders to those with more experienced backgrounds.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein individuals with low ability at a task overestimate their ability, and has important implications in trading and finance.

It can negatively impact decision-making processes, risk assessment, and ultimately, financial outcomes.

We look at the key causes and considerations related to the Dunning-Kruger effect in trading and finance.


Key Takeaways – Dunning-Kruger Effect in Trading & Finance

  • Overestimation of Ability
    • Traders with limited experience or knowledge often overestimate their trading skills.
    • Tends to lead to overly aggressive strategies.
    • They might not recognize the complexity, nuances, and dimensionality of markets and the importance of thorough and rigorous analysis, which increases the risk of significant losses.
  • Underestimation of Risks
    • Novice traders may underestimate market risks.
    • They might ignore or misinterpret market data and fail to properly assess potential downside.
  • Need for Continuous Learning
    • The Dunning-Kruger effect shows the importance of continuous education and self-awareness in trading and finance.
    • Traders should actively seek feedback, understand their competency limits, weaknesses, and blind spots. 
    • We all have specific skills, abilities, and ways of thinking that make us suitable for some tasks and bad for others.
      • Weaknesses don’t matter if you have solutions to them.


Causes of the Dunning-Kruger Effect in Trading

Illusory Superiority

A common phenomenon where new traders significantly overestimate their abilities, lacking the necessary experience to accurately evaluate their skill level.

We’ve all heard other statistics where most people rate themselves as more intelligent, a better driver, etc., than average.

Someone might also have some level of financial success – i.e., they make money from their job – but this has nothing to do with financial skill.

Or they think having success in one thing makes them knowledgeable in another.

For example, let’s say someone saves $2,000 per month for 45 years. But because of poor trading skill, instead of getting ~7% standard market returns through indexing they got 0%.

They would still have over $1 million saved.

Even though they did very poorly overall, their savings contributions carried them.

Limited Self-Awareness

The inability of less-skilled individuals to recognize their own weaknesses and knowledge gaps accurately.

A deficiency in metacognitive ability prevents individuals from accurately evaluating their limitations and areas of ignorance.

Lack of Financial Literacy

Fundamental misunderstandings of basic financial concepts can lead individuals to overestimate their trading and financial decision-making abilities.

They may have no specific training in economics or finance or background in any way.

For example, someone trading or investing in a foreign bond may think the return is just the nominal yield simply because that’s what they see.

The reality is far more complicated.

Complexity of Financial Markets

Novice traders might underestimate the complexity of financial markets due to the Dunning-Kruger effect, where they lack the necessary knowledge and experience to accurately assess their own abilities. 

This cognitive bias leads them to have an inflated sense of confidence in their trading, investing, or financial skills, and cause them to misjudge the nuances and complexities of markets.

Information Overload

The vast availability of information might lead to the belief in making informed decisions, when individuals are actually misinterpreting data or trends.

Or, for example, they might look at the recent past to inform what they’ll do in the future or reach specious conclusions that aren’t true to fit a certain narrative (“home prices never go down”).

Success Attributed to Skill Rather Than Luck

Markets have variance, so amateur traders can sometimes achieve better results than professionals.

This is especially true over the short run (the same is true in other high-variance games like poker) and with smaller sums of money – i.e., transaction costs and market depth/impact are much bigger concerns for institutional traders than they are for individual traders.

Success resulting from chance can lead to overconfidence by mistakenly attributing these to personal skill.

Beginner’s Luck

Following the above, initial successes can boost confidence because of favorable variance and cause individuals to attribute their luck or favorable market conditions to their skill.

Social Media and Echo Chambers

Exposure to success stories and reinforcement from echo chambers on social media platforms can distort the perceived ease of trading success, inflating confidence levels.

Moreover, those most influential on social media tend to be good marketers and have a personality fit for media, which is a different skill set.

Social and traditional media often present oversimplified “hot takes” and superficial judgments that fail to capture the depth, complexities, nuances, and trade-offs involved in the decision-making processes, which require carefully weighing multiple factors and considering various perspectives.

Complexity of Financial Markets

Failing to appreciate the multidimensionality of markets and finance.

Focusing on select facets or variables while neglecting other important aspects (and not being aware of them) in markets can produce an illusion of comprehension.

Early encounters with the market can foster a misleading sense of understanding, particularly if trades go one’s way or things going against them are just “bad luck.”

Confirmation Bias

This bias leads individuals to favor information that confirms pre-existing beliefs while disregarding evidence to the contrary.

This is the one bias that even experienced traders admit to the most.

Overconfidence Bias

Traders and investors might overrate their capacity to analyze market conditions, predict future trends accurately, and achieve consistent returns.

This might prompt them to take undue risks.

The reality is that outperforming markets is not easy, and a small percentage of traders make a lot while most lose in relation to a representative index.

Illusion of Knowledge

The abundance of information surrounding financial markets can create a deceptive sense of expertise.

This can lead individuals to believe they understand more than they do.

Limited Feedback

The delay or ambiguity in performance feedback can hinder the timely recognition and rectification of errors or misconceptions.

Overreliance on Anecdotal Evidence

A preference for personal success stories or those of others over rigorous analysis or empirical evidence can amplify the Dunning-Kruger effect.


Considerations of the Dunning-Kruger Effect in Trading

Education and Awareness

Enhancing financial literacy through comprehensive education enables individuals to better comprehend their limitations and the complexities of financial markets.

Risk Management Practices

The adoption of strong risk management strategies, while acknowledging the inherent high-risk nature of trading, curbs the repercussions of overconfidence.

Like in most games and sports, when players are young they like to express themselves offensively because scoring is seemingly how you win games.

It’s the same in trading. But we learn over time to balance between aggression and defense for our own sustainability.

Seeking Professional Advice

Motivating traders and investors to consult with financial professionals offers a more grounded evaluation of their trading capabilities and strategic approaches.

Psychological Training

The integration of psychological insights into financial education frameworks can help identify and correct cognitive biases, including the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Continuous Learning and Humility

A culture of continuous education and modesty assists individuals in staying receptive to new insights and mindful of the likelihood of overestimating their competencies.


Open-mindedness is very important in finance and trading, as markets are constantly evolving, and new information or perspectives can challenge previously held assumptions.

Keeping an open mind allows traders/investors to adapt, consider alternative strategies, and make more informed decisions.

The more open-minded you are, the less likely you are to be surprised.

Recognize That We Know Little Relative to What There Is to Know

What we know is a small fraction compared to what we don’t know – both the things we know we don’t know and the things we don’t know that we don’t know.

Our limited understanding should instill a sense of humility and an eagerness to keep learning and exploring the depths of economics, finance, markets, and trading, and other disciplines that go into our success.

Overconfidence and Risk-Taking

Awareness of how the Dunning-Kruger effect might propel individuals toward unwarranted risk-taking due to an illusory sense of security is important.

Poor Decision-Making

Recognizing that inflated confidence can lead to reliance on insufficient information or erroneous analyses is key to promoting better decision-making practices.

Refusal to Learn

Addressing the mindset of having “sufficient knowledge” is essential to encourage ongoing education and skill enhancement among traders/investors.

It’s important not to get stuck in one’s ways. Markets and strategies are constantly evolving.

Sometimes You Need to Let People Make a Mistake

If someone is doing something wrong, or their opinion is unlikely to be correct, but is resistant to directive, sometimes it’s better to let them make a mistake (assuming it’s not too serious and there’s an evident penalty for making errors).

That way, if they’re self-aware and reflective, they might learn the consequences of doing that action.

Even experienced traders make the same mistakes, but they tend to be more aware and less willing to blame external factors (“the market is rigged”) for any shortcomings or suboptimal outcomes.


Acknowledging that an exaggerated perception of one’s knowledge could lead to believe things that aren’t true or acting on incomplete information.

Keep People’s Credibility in Mind

It’s important to be open-minded, but you have to be discerning.

Before taking financial advice from somebody, keep these points in mind:

  • Verify their credentials, experience, and track record
    • Have they successfully accomplished the thing in question multiple times?
  • Understand their incentives and potential conflicts of interest
  • Ensure the advice aligns with your financial goals and risk tolerance
  • Don’t blindly follow advice; do your own research and due diligence