“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” — Bertrand Russell
Any observation of 21st century culture can’t help but give one the impression that there are a lot of incompetent people in the world doing stupid and often dangerous things. It’s hard to tell if this is some kind of epidemic, man as a species is evolving towards more stupidity, or if instant access of modern mass communications puts a spotlight on isolated instances of stupidity and broadcasts them around the world. Humans, undoubtedly, are the most complicated and bizarre animal that inhabits planet Earth. There is some scientific research that has tried to solve this puzzle. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect takes its name from two Cornell University researchers, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, social psychologists who have the interesting job of studying the puzzling question of why people do the things that they do. They determined that some people have a cognitive bias whereby they fail to adequately assess their level of incompetence at performing a task, erroneously considering themselves to be far more competent than they are and, in some cases, more competent than anyone else. They have a lack of self-awareness, depriving them of the ability to critically analyze their performance. As a result, they may significantly overestimate their own abilities. In simple terms, they are too stupid to know that they are stupid. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is one of the more common cognitive biases. There is a corollary to this effect which is called the Imposter Syndrome, where competent people underestimate their abilities but, unfortunately, Imposter Syndrome is far less common.
“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”—William Shakespeare
Dunning and Kruger postulated this theory after a series of experiments started at Cornell in 1969. They tested students in a number of areas such as humor, grammar, and logic and compared the actual results of the tests with student estimates of how well they did. Those who scored well on the test consistently underestimated their performance, while those who scored the lowest “grossly overestimated” their scores. Dunning and Kruger found a correlation between the lowest scoring students and the degree to which they overestimated their ability. Dunning and Kruger explained it this way:
“This overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”
While many view the Dunning-Kruger Effect as being somewhat tongue-in-cheek humor, this phenomenon has been something that has fascinated great thinkers throughout the ages. Socrates, Shakespeare, Charles Darwin, and Bertrand Russell all have notable quotes that undoubtedly refer to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The work of Dunning and Kruger is nothing new, this cognitive bias has existed throughout time. In previous eras of human history it would have been passed off harmlessly as the behavior of a village idiot, an eccentric old woman, or some nondescript character that society could avoid. In the 21st century, it might be more insidious.
Instant access of information has made people less likely, rather than more likely, to do their own research when it comes to political, economic, and social decision-making. Many are influenced by celebrities such as actresses, actors, athletes, and comedians when casting a vote or taking a stand on topics that impact contemporary society. But here’s a sobering thought: What if some of these celebrity sages are suffering from the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”—Isaac Asimov
2016 is an election year in the United States. We also live in a time when accurate information is accumulating exponentially. There’s no reason that anyone needs to trust someone else’s opinion on issues of social and political importance. Before you surrender your opinion to the bias of someone else, do your own research and make a conscious effort before you decide on which village idiot to support.
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