The Confidence of the Incompetent

The Dunning-Kruger Effect shows why some people think they’re great even when their work is terrible

WITH ANOTHER ELECTION coming, I find myself wondering again why so many people are running for office who are manifestly ill-equipped or unsuited for the posts they seek. That includes many running for re-election, despite the fact their performance in their current positions hardly warrants another go-round.

In election after election, candidates of all parties reveal themselves as incompetent, or worse. At the same time, they obviously believe (and ask us to share their belief) that they are entirely capable of meeting the demands that will be put upon them should they be elected or re-elected.

For what it’s worth, I think I may have found an explanation.

Towards the end of the last century, American psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger published a paper under the intriguing title, Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Their fascinating and revealing conclusions have become known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

They had become fascinated with the case of McArthur Wheeler, who robbed banks after soaking his face in lemon juice, confident it would make him invisible to the surveillance cameras. It didn’t, and he was arrested and jailed.

Under questioning, he revealed that his belief was based on the fact that lemon juice is often used in invisible ink, ergo covering his face with it would make his features invisible as well. Though he was found mentally sound and not under the influence of drugs, he seemed unable to comprehend that he could have been wrong, because he believed he had a sound understanding of chemistry.

In such an absence of genuine understanding, it is very easy (and due to human nature, perhaps unavoidable) for individuals to believe themselves more knowledgeable than they really are…

Seeking to understand Wheeler’s personal misjudgement of his knowledge and capabilities, Dunning and Kruger tested the actual abilities of young adults in a number of fields. They graded the results, then invited the subjects to rate their own performances.

Having analyzed the resulting data, they concluded that people who are demonstrably incompetent in a given area (or areas) will generally overestimate their ability and performance and be less able to identify genuine competence in others. That makes it very difficult for them to overcome their own shortcomings and gain insight into their actual performance and its implications.

It also creates a level of confidence in their own opinions that is unwarranted and sometimes even dangerous. Imagine a manager or administrator or politician who cannot even comprehend they may not have the skill levels they imagine. Living within in a self-created fantasy of exaggerated competence, their actual incompetence can lead to very negative situations with unanticipated, and sometimes disastrous, results.

A follow-up study in 2018 indicated that people whose actual knowledge of government and politics is limited are more likely to believe they are well-informed. The study also suggested that such a tendency is often most pronounced among those who identify with one particular party or ideology. That may help explain voter allegiance to candidates whose performance during the campaign or in office simply does not warrant it.

In such an absence of genuine understanding, it is very easy (and due to human nature, perhaps unavoidable) for individuals to believe themselves more knowledgeable than they really are. Not to mention being disdainful of people who may truly be more well-informed. That can lead to some unfortunate results, for both individuals and society (see politicians, above).

Though there are almost certainly additional factors in the disappointing performance of so many people in politics, the Dunning-Kruger Effect has provided a fascinating possible explanation.

To me, however, the most troubling thing about those who are exemplified by the hypothesis is that they are generally unaware of its negative implications for themselves and the people they are supposed to serve. Jim Chapman

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