Thursday, December 13, 2018

Interesting times

Stanley - Thursday

These turbulent times, particularly in the United States, are good cause to revisit the Dunning-Kruger effect and to remind ourselves of its consequences.

Simply put, the Dunning-Kruger effect states that people of lower ability think they know more than they do and consequently have an illusion of superiority. They lack the meta-cognitive skills of reflection, which results in them not knowing what they don't know.

The effect was described by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, in a 1999 study titled Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Apparently the idea for the study came from the case of bank robber McArthur Wheeler, who robbed banks with his face covered with lemon juice, which he believed would make it invisible to the surveillance cameras. This belief was based on his misunderstanding of the chemical properties of lemon juice as an invisible ink. When he was apprehended later in the day after he'd robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight and was shown the surveillance tapes, he expressed shock and exclaimed 'but I wore the juice!'

I don't know whether Wheeler won a Darwin Award. If he had it would have confirmed one of Darwin's many insights: 'Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.' (Descent of Man)

Charles Darwin
In a later study, Dunning and Kruger tested their theory on students in an introductory psychology course. They looked at how well the students assessed their performance on tests in three areas: logical reasoning, English grammar, and personal sense of humour. After receiving their results, the students were asked to estimate their rank in the class. Incompetent students estimated their rank higher than their results indicated, while competent students tended to underestimate their rank. Students who scored at about the 10th percentile estimated they'd scored at about the 60th percentile.

The two researchers also examined gun owners and found the same effect - those who scored poorly on a tests of guns and shooting wildly overestimated their expertise.

(Getty Images)
It is important to note that most Dunning and Kruger's studies were done using students in the United States. It is important because some multi-cultural studies they conducted indicated that the Dunning-Kruger effect was also influenced by cultural background. For example, Japanese students overall tended to underestimate their ability.

My memory may be faulty as to the exact numbers, but I remember reading a few years ago about one of the huge multinational tests on mathematics or science. I don't remember which. Students from the USA came about tenth in the rankings, but first in their confidence in how well they'd done.

Of course, Dunning and Kruger were not the first to notice the effect they describe. Here are a few historic examples I found on Wikipedia.

'Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance.' - Confucius

'The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.' - William Shakespeare (As You Like It)

'A little learning is a dangerous thing.' - Alexander Pope

'Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.' - Friedrich Nietzsche

'One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.' - Bertrand Russell

It seems that the clash between competence and the illusion of competence is spreading far and wide with the illusionists gaining the upper hand (hopefully temporarily). The situation is exacerbated by a growing climate of anti-intellectualism, fuelled by religious extremism and cultism, and diminishing funds for education.

As Robert Kennedy said in a speech in Cape Town in June 1966: 'There is a Chinese curse which says "May he live in interesting times." Like it or not we live in interesting times.' 

Robert Kennedy (Photo: S Trollip)
Given the hubris of some of the world's leaders, I hope the times don't become too interesting.


  1. Excellent column, Stan, smack-dab in the bull's eye. I'm not sure, though, how much of an effect education has on this outcome. I've known a LOT of 'well' educated people who were piss-poor at assessing any situation (including when to cross a street). I've long said that the greatest single improvement we could make to our educational system has little to do with "readin', writin', and 'rithmatic," but rather a required course on logic and reasoning. A well-designed and well-taught course on that subject could do wonders toward improving the quality of policy 'debate' and the electoral process in general. Or maybe not. Some people just don't WANT to think and reason, because... well, they already KNOW what's right.

    1. Dunning and Kruger believe that the right sort of education does start minimising the effect. That is, providing people (of both persuasions) with better markers for their reflection results income realistic self-assessments.

      I couldn't agree more about mandatory courses in logic. Teaching people to logically parse newspaper articles and op-eds, as well as politicians' speeches, would help voters make more informed decisions come Election Day.

  2. Stan, I think the social milieu in which people move contributes to these illusions. Intelligent, well educated people tend to spend their time together. The less intelligent, less educated likewise. If I compare myself with the people I interact with on a daily basis, I feel myself to be about average. The lesser reflective folk seeing themselves as smarter than they are probably think of themselves as average. But not among their group, among humans in general.

  3. Interesting idea, cara, that our self-assessments tend to the norm. But that would only partly explain why less reflective people often self-assess them selves to be above the norm. The idea does work for more reflective people.

  4. Terrific post, Stan. I think current political polls in your “turbulent times” locales might just mark their respective population percentages laboring under the Dunning-Kruger effect. Admittedy, my observation might be suspect having been born and raised in the city where Dunning and Kruger found their unique form of Pittsburgh Stealer, MacArthur Wheeler.