Saturday, April 09, 2016

"The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is."

For people who are totally stymied by all the incompetent politicians they see who are doing really dumb and often damaging things, let me offer you an explanation:

The Dunning and Kruger Effect or why incompetent people are so incompetent.

"The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is. Dunning and Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their own ineptitude and evaluate their own ability accurately. Their research also suggests corollaries: highly skilled individuals may underestimate their relative competence and may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.[1] The bias was first experimentally observed by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University in 1999. They postulated that the effect is the result of internal illusion in the unskilled, and external misperception in the skilled: 'The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.'"
Let's tease this out with an example from my own life.

In my first six months or so as new Peace Corps volunteer, I was learning and learning and I was sure I would have everything mastered shortly.

But then my brain morphed and I began to feel incredibly incompetent and hopeless.

In both cases I was right.  I was learning at an incredible rate.  My Thai vocabulary and ability to communicate kept growing in leaps and bounds.  I was meeting all sorts of new people and situations and adding them all into my new experiences file.

BUT, one day I began to become aware of how much more there was to know that I hadn't realized before.  The size of my ignorance (that I was aware of) was growing at a much faster rate than my new knowledge was growing.

Thai culture was so much richer and complex than I had originally thought.  As I learned ten things, I became aware of 100 more things I knew nothing about.

I began, for instance, to understand that my American way of seeing the world blinded me from so much.  How could that be?  Well, I labeled and organized everything using my American way of seeing the world.  On the simplest level, I was thinking about my new Thai words as equivalents to English words.  But eventually, I realized that their meanings,  while similar, often weren't captured in the closest English word.  Sure, a car was a car and a telephone was a telephone.  But the social meanings of having a car or a telephone were totally different in 1960s Thailand and California.  And other words had no equivalents whatsoever in English.  They were abstract concepts that had no labels in English, were embedded in Thai and/or Buddhist culture.  Learning these words and what they meant were peeks into this alien (to me) culture and to ways of thinking about the world that were invisible to most people.

The point of all this is to explain how somebody can think he's more competent than he is - as I was in the beginning in Thailand.

And to explain how someone who is reasonably competent, can feel he isn't competent - because as I grew to know so much more than when I arrived in Thailand, I became aware that my ignorance was significantly greater than what I knew.  And as I learned more about Thailand, my mental map of  of my ignorance was growing much faster than my mental map of my knowledge.

Being incompetent has some benefits.  One great advantage of the incompetent is their certainty of their rightness.  To be certain, gives one power.  There are no second thoughts, no doubts about the path you are taking.  You can charge forth with total commitment.  Those about you who raise questions, are simply wrong and wrong-headed.  And the more intangible the work you do, the easier it is to think you're right.  After a while, for example, a basketball player whose shots never go through the rim, figures out that he's not performing.  But not so a politician whose bills get passed.  The fact that they're passed because the majority are as incompetent as he is, or because the rules and procedures are rigged in his favor, doesn't matter to his certainty.  And it's hard to prove him wrong.  Even if things go bad, he can always say, "Yeah, but they woulda been even worse without my legislation."  (Think about how Alaskan Republican law makers are dancing around the fact that the tax credit they gave the oil companies a couple of years ago to stimulate drilling and jobs, is now more than the revenue we get from oil.  And those jobs?  Companies are cutting back.  But they have answers to all that.)

However, if you are wiser, more competent, you see all the possible problems with your plan.  You understand the issues your opponents raise and they cause you to pause.  You understand that history is filled with people who have been hailed as heroes in their own time, but history's revisions have identified them as fools.  So your self-confidence is always in check.  It's harder to use simplistic sound bytes, because you know things are much more complex.  And when you try to include those complications, your opponents' eyes glaze over and in their minds you are proving the weakness of your position.

So is there hope?  Dunning and Kruger do say that incompetent people can grow to understand their incompetence with good training.  The title quote described the situation of a number of my grad students when they entered the program.  They simply didn't have the analytical skills to understand why they were wrong.  Thinking skills were part of what we taught.  And I saw transformations among my students as they learned to apply some rigor to their thinking.

When a student responded to a question.  I'd often follow up the student's initial response with "Why?"  In the beginning the student looked bewildered.  But it was always gratifying when a student, later in the semester,  would look at me and say, "I knew you were going to ask that."  It just meant to me that she had already asked that same question after her first response.  She was starting to think critically about her own answers.

But it's harder to retrain legislators who are in leadership positions in the majority.  They are surrounded by people who reinforce their incompetence.   Staffers for good legislators challenge them.  But other staffers know that challenging their bosses is not a way to move up.   Lobbyists wine and dine legislators.  They tell them how smart they are, they supply them with fabricated research that refutes their opponents' arguments.  The good lobbyists are making ten to twenty times as much as the legislators make and in many cases are far better educated than the legislators are.  At least many in key leadership positions today.

It's heady stuff having power and being surrounded by people who tell you how smart and courageous you are and how evil your opponents are.   It reinforces your mistaken assessment of your competence.  It helps seal out the doubts and questions that truly competent people have.

And it's not a Republican monopoly.  The problem is having so much power that you no longer have to listen to the loyal opposition.  You can just tune them out and do what you want.  It's why we need a more evenly divided state legislature.  And why the new Anchorage Assembly, with eight to three leaning left, can be a problem too.


  1. But then, there's the incompetency of doubt I would lay at the feet of academic process. How does one make a decision if one knows a better solution awaits? You admit this, but still accept their premise. Indecision is a problem in politics, too, after all, as you point out.

    All together, Steve, good stuff. But I think the 'incompetency' model of this analysis will get just about as far as substituting the word 'privilege' for racism in matters of cultural work and class in America.

    To be specific, it's insulting. It assumes superiority if one only gets a better perspective -- theirs. While I can agree the conclusion, the methods are a bit lacking in their ability to move the human in us.

    We are not simply brains in vats, after all. We think with bodies, we are tribal in affiliation, both in custom and thought.

    I will think on this essay. It's a good start. Thanks.

    1. Thanks. It's thinking out loud stimulated by Dunning/Kruger. The word - incompetence - is there. One of the problems I have had with post-modernists (there's lots I liked) was the idea that all sets of values are equal. I get it on the one hand, but on the other it feels so wrong. Humans have some pretty universal values (murder is bad, do onto others, etc.), though the values wear different dress in different cultures. The way I understood Dunning/Kruger to use the word competence was pretty objective - something that could be fairly easily proven. Even given the abstractions of proving good policy, so much of what they’ve done, are doing, is pretty clearly incompetent, starting with the LIO and the oil credits. But, on the other hand, yes, calling someone incompetent is not the quickest way to winning someone’s trust. And every month at the Citizens Climate Lobby meetings I’m reminded that ‘the enemy’ is really a human being and listening to them rather than attacking them is the way to move forward and get something done. And with pushing a carbon fee, that seems to be working. But here, I don’t know that I have the ability or the access to do the kind of talking that is necessary.

      I’m assuming that the conclusion you’re agreeing with is about the legislature, not the Dunning/Kruger, but maybe both. And it’s important to make it clear that the ‘incompetence’ refers to specific actions and decision making in a specific sphere, and not to the person as a whole. (Though if we examined other spheres, who knows what we’d find. But I bet some of them are competent fishers or hunters, or musicians, carpenters, etc.)

  2. Check out the interview with Arie Kruglanski on "The Science of Closed-Mindedness," on the podcast "Point of Inquiry."


Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.