I love playing the dumb guy who thinks he’s smart. This was a comment made by Jim Gaffigan to Parade Magazine which featured him on the front page of their July 26, 2020 edition. When I saw the quote, it completely caught my attention because it hit directly at the heart of what is, in my opinion, a pervasive human condition.
A day later, I saw a posting on Linkedin in which the person referred to a research study that investigated the same phenomenon which the authors labeled the Dunning-Kruger Effect. According to Wikopedia, “the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability.”
In two days, I found two completely different references to the same human phenomenon which has bothered me for many years. Simply put, it refers to the fact that many people are convinced they know something as factual or God-given when they have no real factual or databased evidence or support for that belief, or, more simply, when they don’t know what they’re talking about. If that isn’t bad enough, these are usually the people who tend to judge and condemn others by their unsubstantiated convictions. And worse yet, they have no idea that they may be wrong and overestimating themselves as being knowledgeable in something that may be completely unfounded.
Where do we see this happening? For starters, listen to people’s opinions and views about the various problems and political issues in our country. In today’s world, many people have strongly set views on coronavirus, how it started (conspiracy) and how we should respond to it (constitutional rights). These people hold firmly to their views and reject any information, including statistical and medical data, if it contradicts their set position. At the same time, they hungrily absorb anything that supports their position, even when it is outrageously absurd and completely unsupported by evidence.
When discussing coronavirus, the same people express their view with the highest level of confidence in their righteousness, often arrogantly and defiantly, and with intense fervor towards those who question or oppose their view. We can find the same dynamic occurring in people who are set in their convictions about guns and gun laws, abortions laws, foreigners and “illegals”, minorities, Democrats or Republicans, welfare laws and people who do not work, the rich and their privileges, and on and on.
As you think about it, it becomes clear that this human condition is pervasive, if not universal, and that most of us, including ourselves, are probably sufferers of the Dunning- Kruger Effect to some extent or another. Worse yet, as the researchers found, we are usually not aware of when we are doing it because of our exaggerated belief in our righteousness.
What makes us act like this? How can educated, civilized people so easily come to believe in something without questioning or evaluating the validity of that belief and go to the point of being convinced that they know what they’re talking about because they’re smart enough to know what they know, and smarter than others who may question what they know? Like in most human situations, the answer to these questions is complex and very likely has many parts to it. However, there are some fairly clear answers to this paradoxical human behavior.
One obvious answer lies in how we are taught to accept and believe “truths”. In most of our societies and our immediate families, we are taught right from early childhood that the truth is what the adults in our life tell us it is. Most children are not allowed to question those “truths” or to look at alternative “truths”. In good homes and social settings, the children are rewarded for accepting and acting on those truths and so they come to associate being a “good person” with accepting and believing in the truths that are told to them.
Not only are such children not taught how to question and use procedures to evaluate or validate what are considered truths, but they are often punished when they try to do so by the adults in their social system or family. If a person not only accepts the truths told them by their seniors, but also becomes an obedient and ardent student and advocate of that truth, he or she will receive support and encouragement that will continue to strengthen his or her belief that he or she is completely right and smart enough to not be questioned about what he or she say. At this point, facts, data, or evidence do not matter, only one’s conviction does. And when a person is so convinced that he or she is right, there is no room for debate or negotiation.
While there are many human shortcomings that contribute to our continual pain and pathos, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is clearly a significant one. The authors of this research showed graphically that the greater one’s ignorance about his or her own shortcomings, the higher will be his or her exaggerated belief in his or her own superiority. They labeled the high point at which those two factors intersect “Mount Stupid”.