I have noticed recently that in certain situations I am presented with someone who is clearly wrong, but has the kind of confidence normally reserved for brain surgeons. Not only do they exhibit extreme confidence regarding an issue they either know nothing...

I have noticed recently that in certain situations I am presented with someone who is clearly wrong, but has the kind of confidence normally reserved for brain surgeons. Not only do they exhibit extreme confidence regarding an issue they either know nothing about or are coming at from the wrong direction, but they seem predisposed to criticize and complain from such a lofty perch of righteousness that I am rendered defenseless from pure shock. What is going on?

I have read several bits of news lately, and if you combine them I think you begin to see a problem, and a reason for all this arrogance, criticism and supreme confidence in matters clearly beyond the critic's mental capacity.

The first bit of insight was a study now being called the Dunning-Kruger effect, where the dumb get confident and the intelligent get doubtful. The introduction to this "effect" via a real life story goes like this:

Daniel Keogh: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1995. A local man, McArthur Wheeler, walks into two banks in the middle of the day and robs them both at gunpoint. Making away with the cash, he is arrested later that evening. Back at the station police sit him down and show him footage from the banks' security cameras. Wheeler can't believe it, the cameras had somehow seen through his disguise. He was seen mumbling to himself, 'But I wore the juice.' His was no ordinary disguise; no balaclava, mask or elaborate makeup, just lemon juice, liberally applied to the face. He was certain that the squirt of citrus would render him invisible to security cameras.

This story of supreme overconfidence despite the fact that the perpetrator was clearly incompetent provides a window into an interesting physiological area within which Kruger and Dunning (on behalf of Cornell University) shone their observational flashlights in 1999 resulting in a research paper titled 'Unskilled and Unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessment'.

So, point #1. Stupid people believe they are correct, even in the face of obvious information to the contrary.

Bertrand Russell once said, 'In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.' From his essay 'The Triumph of Stupidity', published in 1933.

Next, I was shocked as I watched the trailer for "Waiting for Superman" to learn that even as American school children trail miserably in Science and Math scores (compared to the 30 or so other industrialized countries), we did score #1 in one trait. What could it be? Art? Creativity? English? Nope. American children scored #1 in "Confidence". Now at first you might like the sound of that, but step back and think about it. Why are they all so confident even as they trail at the rear of the pack in the other scores? Does this reflect the Dunning-Kruger effect? Point #2 is served.

Lastly, we now have a culture who is expecting to have a voice on any matter of things, from voting on the next pop superstar to posting videos on YouTube if they are pulled over by the police for speeding (shortly before they file a lawsuit). These actions seem to be accompanied by a silent raised middle finger implying "I can publish this, I have a voice, so you better watch out!" Are we dealing with a backlash of Americans who felt disenfranchised and unable to have an effect for too many years? Is the recent wave of social media giving the underserved a megaphone to finally air their grievances? Or are we dealing with declining intelligence levels which promote overconfidence? Point #3 to add to the mix.

Charles Darwin once said, 'Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge.'

I have certainly experienced the benefit of having the wherewithal to stop in the midst of a crisis or stressful situation, and ensure I am looking at things from all available perspectives. Rather than rush forward screaming and cursing because something goes against what I believe, I tend to stop and leave the door of self doubt open, if for no other reason than to assure myself I have done my due diligence. Once all angles have been considered, I proceed with my decided upon course. This is the kind of analytical thinking we are (or perhaps were) taught in math, and most definitely in science. Science has control groups for a reason, it provides the counter balance to the test group.

It seems to me we have lost our appreciation for the "control group" and as a society we prefer to act like ignorant children who are supremely overconfident (or spoiled) and would rather throw rocks at everything that doesn't reflect back the image we expect to see. It's very easy to do this, you don't have to open your mind, consider options, contemplate the fact you might be wrong. You just have to start bitching.

The Dunning-Kruger effect article makes this very important point:

At its extreme it lets charming and charismatic yet completely incompetent people to rise to the top and often end up being in charge.

So, how do you deal with this phenomenon when you are presented with it? According to Dunning and Kruger, grabbing these people, shaking them by their shoulders and screaming "idiots" at them won't do you any good. The only solution is education, as only education can provide tools to greater competence. Unfortunately this paints a grim picture for those of us dealing with people who have long since graduated from the education system (or simply left it). Got any ideas or tips? Do you see this happening or is it just me? Am I completely off base here? Leave me a comment, I'm dying to know what you all think on this one!

Share on Twitter or Facebook Published August 4th 2010