The Dunning-Kruger Effect

We are living in very scary times. Most of the people who run most of the countries in the world seem to be mad. And, at least in modern democracies, this can only reflect the insanity of those who voted - whether in an election or a referendum. Perhaps this is because we find ourselves in a binary world where two groups with opposing views just shout over each other, both equally convinced they are absolutely right, while the rest of us look on helplessly and think they’re all idiots.

Fortunately this is nothing new. In 1955 Bertrand Russell wrote:

One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.

Over 40 years later, psychologists Dunning and Kruger confirmed the science of Russell’s observations in what they described as ‘cognitive bias of illusory superiority’. In short, incompetent people are incompetent because they lack the skills to recognise their own incompetence. And when they inevitably make mistakes they are unable to learn from these mistakes because they are so convinced that they are right.

An example described in their paper involves a bank robber who, in an attempt to conceal himself from security cameras, covered his face with lemon juice. This was based on his misunderstanding of how lemon juice worked as invisible ink. We can see that he was stunningly stupid. He couldn’t, and thought he had what Baldrick would have called 'a cunning plan'.

The flip side is that smart people tend to underestimate their own talent because they believe that if they can do a task easily then it can’t be too difficult for anyone else. They don't realise how unusual their abilities are and often suffer from 'imposter syndrome' - a fear that they're not smart and that they might get found out.

They also know that the world is complex and that people who believe they understand something probably don’t. This is the so-called Socratic Paradox: ‘I know that all that I know is that I do not know anything.’

So where does that leave us?

We seem destined to ruled by over-confident dunces who think they know everything, but actually know very little. Are we all going to hell in a hand cart or can we, the less confident and more able, get together to stop the madness before it's too late?