Saturday, July 30, 2011

Time to Learn About The Dunning-Kruger Effect and What It Means

I love political polls, especially the ones that reinforce Jay Leno’s “Streetwalking” segments – in which he asks “average Americans” about basic historical “general knowledge” facts, and they provide him with hilariously loopy answers.

Like “America declared its independence from France in 1865.”

Currently, those “common wisdom” polls suggest that we’re screwed and things couldn’t get much worse and that government is the problem.

Okay, I know.  

Everybody has a lot of stuff going on in their lives.  It’s hard to stay on top of everything.  Sometimes we just have to trust the folks that we figure are the experts. We can’t know everything. Simple is best.
But there are some things WE KNOW!

We KNOW that politics and politicians are all childish, evil and bad.  And government costs too much.  And taxes are evil.  At least, that’s what they say on TV, anyway…

So, when something really important comes along – say, like electing somebody to Congress or running the government – we tend to gravitate to candidates who we think actually THINK like us.  Chances are, they’ll represent us and our view of reality and do the Right Thing. 

This, of course, may be a tremendously bad idea, especially if we haven’t been paying really close attention to what’s been going on. Like The Issues.

Listen. There are lots of politicians out there who use the phrase “the American People” followed by verbs like “think”, “believe”, “want”, “expect”, “have said” and other similar nonsense.   Next, they’re happy to tell you that “the American People” (for whom they say that they speak) are damn near infallible on virtually every imaginable issue when they think collectively.

It's kinda like having a 330 million person Pope...gifted with infallibility.
Think about it – according to these folks, “American Group-think” is always right…which, of course, is why lynchings of blacks made so much sense in parts of the 1920s Deep South.  Local group-think indicated that was the way to go.  It’s hard to argue with majority opinion, after all. 

So…Everybody knows you can’t spend more than you have. That’s just common sense.  Or “group-think.”

Of course, if you ask those people if THEY should pay cash on the barrelhead for their $350,000 houses and thus be mortgage free or pay cash up front for their children’s college tuitions, - no mortgages or no college loans - they’ll look at you like you have three or four heads.

Apparently, that’s a different kettle of fish.

Problem is, most folks don’t know that all this “knowledge stuff” has already been studied by experts (Justin Dunning & David Kruger) who actually DO know what they’re doing.  In fact, they’ve gone so far as to lend their own names to their findings.

It’s called the “Dunning – Kruger Effect.”  You can read about it here, in a “Psychology Today” article published last year.  

In a nutshell, the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” posits the following:  If you’re really, really stupid, you’re probably too stupid to know just how stupid you are.  You are confident that you have a lockhold on The Truth.

You may actually believe that NPR, foreign aid and health education collectively soak up huge amounts of your tax dollars.  But, of course, they don’t.  And you probably have no idea how to find out how much they actually are – in real dollar amounts.  And I’m not going to tell you where you can find out …

Admit it, if this is all too hard, you’ve been watching “American Idol” a lot…

Therefore, you might think (incorrectly) that you actually understand what’s going on around you, when, in fact, you don’t.  Inevitably, you’re probably convinced that you understand the situation, even though you couldn’t explain it to an alien from Mars, except by using the current buzzwords being used by those TV pundits who keep telling you that (a.) you’re smart and (b.) they can tell you what you should be thinking.

Worst of all, people suffering from Dunning-Kruger truly believe they have “The Answer.”

Politicians learned years ago that it’s always a good idea to tell you – the voter -  just how smart you are.  The more they tell you that you’re smart, the more you’re inclined to agree with them.

And, if we can distract you with a few “hot-button” issues – Casey Anthony, Maria & Arnold's split, Amy Winehouse, America’s Got Talent, same-sex marriage – so much the better.

Interestingly, nobody in elected office would ever suggest that you’re suffering from “Dunning-Kruger”, even though their staff aides already know just how easily you can be manipulated with a couple of “feel-good” buzzwords. 

Face it, you really, really like it when politicians tell you that you’re smart, even when you’ve never heard of Ludwig Van Mises and the Austrian School. If you had to explain Ayn Rand’s economic philosophy, you’d likely be at wit’s end, even when the guys promoting it say it’s the bee’s knees and you’re inclined to believe them. (If you’re not sure about those things, try Google…)

Politicians’ staffs understand the Dunning-Kruger effect; in fact, they rely on it.  Chances are, if you suffer from it, you don’t have a clue. 

Buzzwords sound good, and complex ideas seem understandable, especially if they’re reduced to buzzwords, which are the linguistic equivalent of the “lowest common denominator.”

Still, when it comes to making a choice about the future, I’m inclined to trust in the truth of Dunning-Kruger, not buzzwords.

And I’m not really all that fond of that “common wisdom of the American people” thing.  I’ve seen where that’s taken us in the past.

1 comment:

  1. Well, one exception to your post: you don't have to be really really stupid. You just have to believe you're competent in an area where you're not. Most of us have categories in that domain.