How to Know What You Don’t Know

By Association Adviser staff • April 2, 2019

In 1999, psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that described a logical though unfortunate phenomenon: People who aren’t that skilled or knowledgeable about something usually don’t realize they’re not skilled or knowledgeable, but will think they’re pretty smart anyway. On the other end of the spectrum, people who are genuine experts in a subject area assume others around them are just as knowledgeable as them, and can’t understand how others fail when they succeed. You know what you’re talking about; why can’t others on your team follow along?

This phenomenon became known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and hundreds of studies have confirmed its premise: That we’re not great at assessing our own competence, and that we often overestimate our abilities.

What does this have to do with you, an association professional? Let’s ask this question another way: Have you ever launched a new event, magazine or social media account, assumed your members would be just as excited about it as you are and felt disappointed when the initiative fell flat? Don’t feel bad. We’ve all assumed we know what we’re doing when it comes to association communications, and we’ve all been humbled to discover that’s not always true.

There aren’t any magic cures to overcome the Dunning-Kruger Effect, but there is a way to combat it. “First, ask for feedback from other people — and consider it, even if it’s hard to hear,” says Addison Anderson in a TED Ed video based on David Dunning’s work. If you don’t know what you don’t know, ask some colleagues for help.


The 2019 Association Communications Benchmarking Survey is your way to provide this type of help. Now in its eighth year, the survey presents an ever-evolving set of questions to reflect the ever-changing association communications landscape. We need to hear about your experiences as a professional association communicator to help others know what they don’t know. The resulting report will highlight overall association communication best practices while revealing areas where associations can make improvements.

A few benefits of association professionals like you taking the survey include:

  • Early access to customizable reports (July 2019)
  • Seeing how your responses compare to your peers in similarly situated associations
  • Receiving a unique best practices score that allows you to easily evaluate your performance and provides information to help improve your communications efforts
  • Receiving a $10 Amazon gift card (Must be a current association employee and take at least 50 percent of the survey for gift card eligibility)

Balancing Traditional with Trendier Member Communications

Our vision is that enough association professionals will offer their feedback – their honest, anonymous assessment of how well their association communications resonate with members and contribute to goals such as deeper member engagement or increased revenue – that we can provide an accurate picture of how associations of all sizes, membership models and industries are doing at member communication. Your individual input matters!

The second way Association Adviser helps you combat Dunning-Kruger Effect is by offering continued learning though our annual, free Association Communications Benchmarking Report. “The more knowledgeable we become,” says Anderson in the TED video, “the less likely we are to have invisible holes in our competence.” Our report lays out how you and your peers are achieving goals. It discusses how factors like staff and budget size, frequency of communication, and amount of planning affect the success (or failure) of association communications. The report helps your association figure out communication solutions that fit your resources and fulfill your mission.

Last year, combatting information overload/cutting through the clutter re-took the crown as the No. 1 communication challenge respondents said they face when trying to effectively reach members. Without the help of survey participants telling us that getting through to members is still a huge challenge, we would not be able to continue bringing you articles and essays with ideas about how to reach members when it matters most.

2018 Benchmarking Report Top 5 Communication Challenges

Help your peers figure out what they don’t know and what they should know about association communications. Take our 2019 Association Communications Benchmarking Survey today.

And if you want to be entertained after taking our survey, watch any of late-night host Jimmy Kimmel’s “Lie Witness News” segments to see a particularly funny illustration of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. You’re welcome!

Brianna Martin is a marketing manager with Naylor Association Solutions.