Why we don’t recognise our own incompetence

TOO DUMB TO KNOW IT

Imagine that you are hosting a dinner party for a group of friends. Throughout the meal, one guest is spouting off on a topic that he claims to know well. As those around the table listen to his opinions, it’s blindingly clear to everyone that he is grossly ill-informed. Yet, he arrogantly prattles on in the belief that he is the fount of all knowledge.

All humans have blind spots, which is why many of us are oblivious of our own ignorance. We can believe things about our ability that are just not true because — to be blunt — some of us are so dimwitted we don’t realise how dense we really are. A good example is Donald Trump whose confidence and bluster as president never wavered despite his woeful grasp of policy matters.

That we are lousy at accurately evaluating ourselves is not a surprise to social psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger. Their research shows that people who are capable at a particular task or in a certain topic typically underestimate their ability while people who are incapable at a particular task or in a certain topic frequently overestimate their ability.

This disconnect is called the Dunning-Kruger effect and it reveals that while the competent are often plagued with doubt, the incompetent are habitually cocksure of their excellence. Put simply, the Dunning-Kruger effect is the tendency for people to misjudge their abilities, with the skilled putting themselves down and the inept hyping themselves up.

We have long known that fools are blind to their own foolishness. As renowned British naturalist, Charles Darwin, wrote in 1871 in The Descent of Man: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”

Another wise man (allegedly Aristotle) said that “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know”. Smart people are clever enough to know that they don’t know everything, so they read and study to fill the gaps in their intelligence. In contrast, asinine people don’t read or undertake continuous education because they are clueless to the fact that they have knowledge gaps.

The Dunning-Kruger effect stems from our ignorance of our own ignorance. It is a cognitive bias which causes unskilled individuals to suffer from illusory superiority. One way to avoid falling victim to this phenomenon is to inject a healthy dose of humility into your sense of self-regard. For many people, that is easier said than done.

As English philosopher, Bertrand Russell, observed: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts”. We have seen both sides of this cognitive pitfall in action during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Highly qualified epidemiologists — and other scientists who have devoted their careers to studying infectious diseases — readily admitted the limits of their knowledge regarding the behaviour of the novel virus. As true experts, they know where their expertise ends. Fortunately, when the pandemic hit, they knew enough to urge the introduction of social distancing practices and lockdowns.

Still, many people, including political leaders like Trump (USA), Bolsonaro (Brazil) and Modi (India), were dismissive of — an even hostile towards — medical experts, and flouted health warnings. Unsurprisingly, coronavirus outbreaks in these countries spiralled out of control due to the incompetence of self-absorbed “Covidiots” as evidence by their Dunning-Kruger performances.

Around the world, many populist politicians masqueraded as health professionals yet refused to take even basic precautions to keep the public safe. In doing so, they displayed their absolute ignorance of science to the detriment of their citizens. By rejecting COVID-19 countermeasures and downplaying the threat, millions of innocent people died unnecessarily.

Defiant perspectives on COVID have come not just from ignorant people but also lawyers, engineers, accountants and other professionals. Otherwise astute members of society, including Elon Musk, rejected the assessment of medical experts. Musk — who many consider to be a genius — fell foul of the Dunning-Kruger effect. As noted in online magazine InsideHook:

… Elon Musk is not a medical genius. In this instance, he is no more than yet another unqualified mouthpiece in a growing list of blowhards regarded as armchair epidemiologists.

Similar to the coronavirus pandemic, many citizens and politicians show disdain for the science of climate change in the conceited belief that they know better than the experts. (No wonder disaster movies typically begin with the government ignoring a scientist — a case of art imitating life!) The world is full of climate change deniers who are blissfully ignorant of their ignorance.

The science has been settled to the highest degree that climate change is primarily due to human activity. Consequently, air and ocean temperatures are rising, arctic ice is melting, ecosystems are shifting and sea levels are rising. The signs are all around us — the Earth is patently warming which makes the endless debates questioning the truth of climate science gobsmacking.

While many governments agree with the science, politicians make cosmetic changes and largely adopt a business-as-usual philosophy. Meanwhile, climate activists continue to express their frustration and disbelief while climate deniers remain dogmatic in their opposition to climate action. Humanity is fiddling while Rome burns.

As one commentator observed, the Dunning-Kruger effect is:

… more noticeable in the denier set because most of them lack scientific or climate science credentials and training and yet they are challenging the collective views of thousands of trained scientists who do have the required training, credentials, knowledge and skills to discuss climate science.

Science-based arguments are rejected by citizens around the world. These same people voted for climate denying governments in places like America (under Trump) and Brazil. Deniers spend a lot of time on social media eagerly absorbing anything that supports their unscholarly position, even when it’s outrageously absurd and completely uncorroborated by evidence.

The political landscape is replete with evidence of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Take Trump’s rise to the presidency which can be largely attributed to ignorance — his popularity was highest among voters without a university degree. As described in a 2016 Politico Magazine article:

Their expertise about current affairs is too fractured and full of holes to spot that only 9 percent of Trump’s statements are “true” or “mostly” true, according to PolitiFact, whereas 57 percent are “false” or “mostly false” — the remainder being “pants on fire” untruths. Trump himself has memorably declared: “I love the poorly educated.”

Over the past decade or so, citizens who elected populist governments have been let down badly. Voters were lied to by politicians like Trump, but were not smart enough to know it. In democracies such as Turkey, Hungry, Poland and the Philippines, citizens unwittingly elected governments which normalised authoritarianism and diminished their democratic rights.

The “right” leaders were not elected as voters lacked the skills to assess the abilities and competencies of others. Votes were cast based on personal feelings or false information, which is why two eminent political scientists believe that the problem with democracy is voters. While many of us rate ourselves highly in political knowledgeability, the harsh reality is that most of us are ignorant as voters.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is real and permeates all aspects of life. It is evident in people’s viewpoints on education, vaccination, work, sports and even investing. In all walks of life, you will find people who think that they are much better and/or knowledgeable than they really are.

Overconfidence is the mother of all psychological biases and has been blamed for the sinking of the Titanic, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the 2008 meltdown of the subprime mortgage market and the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Overconfidence accounts for a wide range of poor outcomes — including war.

That a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing has been known by philosophers since Socrates. This perceptive ancient Greek thinker said that “the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing”. As wise as this is, I’ll end with the words of Benjamin Franklin which resonate with me:

“Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.”

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Ductus is Latin for “leadership” and “guidance”. Ductus Consulting provides executive mentoring and leadership development. We work one-on-one with CEOs and executives to help them become better and more engaging leaders. We teach top dogs new tricks.

Ductus is owned by Paul Thomas who has personally walked the leadership path for over four decades. He is authoritative with the gravitas you would expect of a business author and former banking CEO.

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Paul J. Thomas

Paul J. Thomas

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Author/Mentor/Non-executive Director. Also, CEO of Ductus Consulting which provides executive mentoring and leadership development.