Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

The Inexplicable Confidence of the Utterly Incompetent

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It seems that with every passing week and month, the partisan political divide has become wider, nastier and far more case-hardened. Political stereotypes (“Hollywood is made up of nothing but intellectually snobbish, irreligious, far-left dupes”; “the South is made up of uneducated, gun-toting bigots”) have supplanted reason and made conversation - let alone progress - next to impossible. We’ve all been victimized by stereotypical belief patterns, whether at work, while socializing or at family gatherings. And, to be perfectly honest, it hurts; precisely because it drives a wedge between people who used to be close. One of the hardest things to deal with is the political certainty of those who in reality evince precious little - if any - knowledge of politics. If it is of any succor however, remember the words of King Solomon, writing under the name of Kohelet:

.מַה־שֶּֽׁהָיָה֙ ה֣וּא שֶׁיִּֽהְיֶ֔ה וּמַ֨ה־שֶּׁנַּֽעֲשָׂ֔ה ה֖וּא שֶׁיֵּֽעָשֶׂ֑ה וְאֵ֥ין כָּל־חָדָ֖שׁ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ

Namely, “What has been is what shall be; and what has been done is what shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.”

Long, long ago, the extreme confidence of the incompetent was noted by Socrates who, we are told, said something along the lines of “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Then there was Charles Darwin who, towards the end of his life noted that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” Not long after Darwin’s demise (1882), a new academic field, Political Philosophy, proved that this was actually true. The so-called “father” of political philosophy was a French polymath (a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning) by the name of Gustav Le Bon. Le Bon (1841-1931) whose areas of academic interest included medicine, sociology, anthropology and physics, was most famous for his 1895 work The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, which has long been considered one of the seminal works of political psychology. As far back as 1895, Le Bon described the psychological underpinnings of support for such demagogues as Hitler, Mussolini, Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump - who wouldn’t become part of the world scene for decades to come.

In a 1999 paper, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger brought statistical truth to what has been known by philosophers since Socrates and Darwin. Simply put, that incompetent people think they know more than they really do, and tend to be more boastful about it.

To test Darwin’s theory, the researchers quizzed people on several topics, such as grammar, logical reasoning and humor. After each test, they asked the participants how they thought they did. Specifically, participants were asked how many of the other quiz-takers they beat.

Dunning and Kruger were shocked by the results, even though it confirmed their hypothesis. Time after time, no matter the subject, the people who did poorly on the tests ranked their competence much higher. On average, test takers who scored as low as the 10th percentile ranked themselves near the 70th percentile. Those least likely to know what they were talking about believed they knew as much as the experts.

What do YOU see when you look in the mirror?

What do YOU see when you look in the mirror?

Dunning and Kruger’s results have been replicated in at least a dozen different domains: math skills, wine tasting, chess, medical knowledge among surgeons and firearm safety among hunters. For readers of this blog, the most important finding of their study - and those studies which have since followed - is that the less people know about civics, politics and foreign policy, the more they claim to understand. Whether or not Donald Trump, his advisers and strategists have ever read, heard of or digested what has come to be known as the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” is as irrelevant as it unlikely. Nonetheless, they act as if they do.

The Dunning Kruger Effect is a type of cognitive bias, whereby people with little expertise or ability assume they have superior expertise or ability. This overestimation occurs as a result of the fact that they don’t have enough knowledge to know they don’t have enough knowledge. When they look in the mirror - assuming they ever do - they see a genius . . . or a titan or one whose every judgment is correct. A study published in the April 2018 issue of the journal Political Psychology aimed the “Dunning Kruger Effect” specifically in the direction of partisan politics. Researched and written by University of Maryland Political Science professor Ian Anson, Partisanship, Political Knowledge, and the Dunning‐Kruger Effect found that those who evinced the least political knowledge (e.g. the ability to name Cabinet secretaries, identify the length of term limits for members of Congress or the names of programs that the U.S. government spends the least on) were far more likely to overestimate their level of political knowledge. Anson’s study found little difference between unknowing Democrats and unknowing Republicans. Indeed by itself, this is awfully depressing.

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While the results of Anson’s study suggest that being uninformed leads to overconfidence across the political spectrum, other studies have shown that Democrats now tend to be more educated than Republicans, possibly making the latter more vulnerable to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. In fact, a Pew Research Center poll released in March of 2018, found that 54 percent of college graduates identified as Democrats or leaned Democratic, compared to 39 percent who identified or leaned Republican.

Writing in Psychology Today, cognitive neuroscientist Bobby Azarian speculated that the Dunning Kruger Effect “ . . . may help explain why certain Trump supporters seem to be so easily tricked into believing proven falsehoods when the President delivers what have become known as “alternative facts,” often using language designed to activate partisan identities. Because they lack knowledge but are confident that they do not, they may be less likely than others to actually fact-check the claims that the President makes.”

Getting through to people is never easy . . . especially in light of what everyone from Socrates and Darwin to Dunning, Kruger and Anson have both posited and proved. The best answer on the horizon is, of course, to overwhelmingly defeat Donald Trump and all those who feed their partisans with half-truth and outright lies, and replace them with people possessing greater intellectual honesty and modesty.

Remember this: a wise person knows what they know; a very wise person knows what they do not know; a truly wise person knows, trusts and engages with those who know the things that they themselves do not know.

452 days until the election . . .

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone