Mar 02

Dunning-Kruger: Imposter Syndrome’s Opposite

Whereas many of us have experienced aspects of the imposter syndrome and can admit it, how many among us knows they’ve experienced its polar opposite: the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) is one who didn’t know of Dunning-Kruger (because it wasn’t yet a thing) but did utter these words: 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. Well, that about sums up Dunning-Kruger.

Along these same lines, “Frequently Wrong But Never In Doubt” is how singer-songwriter Cheryl Wheeler musically described an acquaintance in 1993. Probably everyone has known someone like this.

Psychologist David Dunning and his student Justin Kruger coined the term Dunning-Kruger effect after researching the phenomenon of the inability of incompetent people to recognize their own level of incompetence.

One of Dunning’s conclusions: “We are all poor performers at some things.” Or, as he has succinctly stated on the subject, We Are All Confident Idiots.”

It’s not that we’re uninformed, Dunning states—we’re misinformed. “An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.”

There are possible solutions, though. When we’re in groups, for instance, we can appoint someone “to serve as a devil’s advocate — a person whose job is to question and criticize the group’s logic.” And as individuals we can try to play the same type of role (Big Think):

It helps to try practicing what the psychologist Charles Lord calls ‘considering the opposite.’ To do this, I often imagine myself in a future in which I have turned out to be wrong in a decision, and then consider what the likeliest path was that led to my failure. And lastly: Seek advice. Other people may have their own misbeliefs, but a discussion can often be sufficient to rid a serious person of his or her most egregious misconceptions.

A key additional point made by Dunning is that recognizing we don’t know something doesn’t have to be seen as a failure but as one more step toward figuring out the truth.

Dunning has noted (Politico) the relevance to Donald Trump and his supporters. But the rest of us must also be concerned, he adds, “about our own naive political opinions that are likely to be more nuanced, subtle, and invisible—but perhaps no less consequential. We all run the risk of being too ill-informed to notice when our own favored candidates or national leaders make catastrophic misjudgments.”

So, in our ongoing contemplation of choices, preferences, and engagement in emotionally charged debates, let’s remember that all of us are Dunning-Kruger-ites at least some of the time. “All I am saying is trust, but verify,” Dunning concludes.

Nov 02

How Trump Supporters Might Be Understood

Many of us in the world are struggling to understand Trump supporters. Susan Matthews, Slate, recently got to the real matter at hand:

We can theorize all we want about the disorders that allow him to act in ways both divorced from reality and indifferent to the lives and rights of other human beings. But Trump is not encumbered by his pathological behavior. In fact he is often celebrated for it. You could argue that his pathologies helped him win one of our two major parties’ nominations for president.

This says more about us than it does about Trump and any mental disorder he might have.

By the way, Gabriel Roth of Slate recently compiled the “complete accountings of the candidates’ offenses and misdemeanors“. Under the Trump column, 239 of them; under Clinton, one.

One thing Trump does particularly well is lie—and with more impunity than has probably ever been seen. A reminder: “According to Politico’s fact-checkers Trump tells a lie an average of once every three minutes. Clinton, in contrast, was rated by Politifact as the most honest candidate in either party in this year’s primary season” (Amanda Marcotte, Salon).

Yet who seems to get more heat? As Marcotte notes in this regard, both deeply rooted sexism and Trump’s resentment of “political correctness” that some Trump supporters confuse with honesty are likely a couple factors to blame.

And why do many politicians (especially Trump) lie so much anyway? Jim Taylor, PhD, wrote a Psychology Today post back in 2012 about the reasons:

  1. “Narcissism…”
  2. A candidate’s followers “…live in an echo chamber in which everyone watches the same news channel, listens to the same talk radio, reads the same newspapers and web sites, and hangs out with the same like-minded people. There exists an impermeable membrane that prevents conflicting information from entering…”
  3. “People don’t want to hear the truth…”
  4. “…One of the unintended consequences of the Internet is that information, true or not, lives on forever and it is likely to continue to be believed even in the face of contradictory evidence…”
  5. Cognitive biases. Daniel Kahneman and others have demonstrated that the human mind engages in many cognitive tricks to help people be more efficient, reduce confusion and anxiety, and keep life simple and coherent….”
  6. “If a lie is told enough times, people will assume it is true…”

When you read the above, which of the two candidates came to mind more often?

Cognitive neuroscientist Bobby Azarian (Raw Story) is another who agrees that “(t)he only thing that might be more perplexing than the psychology of Donald Trump is the psychology of his supporters” and offers several possible explanations:

  1. The Dunning-Kruger Effect (see this post). “…The Dunning-Kruger effect explains that the problem isn’t just that they are misinformed; it’s that they are completely unaware that they are misinformed…”
  2. Hypersensitivity to Threat. “…Science has unequivocally shown that the conservative brain has an exaggerated fear response when faced with stimuli that may be perceived as threatening…”
  3. Terror Management Theory. A solidly researched theory that “…predicts that when people are reminded of their own mortality, which happens with fear mongering, they will more strongly defend those who share their worldviews and national or ethnic identity, and act out more aggressively towards those who do not…”
  4. High Attentional Engagement. “…According to a recent study that monitored brain activity while participants watched 40 minutes of political ads and debate clips from the presidential candidates, Donald Trump is unique in his ability to keep the brain engaged…”

So, now that we get it—maybe? kinda?— what do we do with it? As Azarian points out, we can MAKE OUR OWN VOTES MATTER.