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Too Stupid to Know

Entry 1930, on 2018-08-21 at 20:45:04 (Rating 5, Comments)

This is not the first blog post where I have mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect, and I suspect it will not be the last, because it seems to me that the primary cause of most of the problems we have in modern society can be attributed to this classic psychological phenomenon.

In fact, having just checked back, it seems that it has been over a year since I mentioned it (in "Dilbert Cartoons" on 2017-05-09) and the previous mention was a further year back before that (in "They Are Idiots" on 2016-05-11). So, apparently, another mention is well overdue!

So first, I need to provide a quick reminder of what it is, because there are a surprisingly large number of people who have never heard of it.

The research that first revealed the DKE was done in 1999 by psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning. They found that a certain subset of leaders not only gave themselves too much credit, but also rated real experts as being less competent than themselves. Other studies since then have confirmed the effect.

So to paraphrase: not only are many people in leadership roles incompetent, but they are too incompetent to even realise how incompetent they actually are, and too incompetent to realise how competent others are.

So how do people become incompetent? Probably through the standard promotion mechanism most organisations have, because there is another, less formal phenomenon which works in conjunction with the DKE, called the Peter Principle. Simply put, this states that people rise to a position where they are no longer competent, and then stay there.

I haven't found any credible research on what percentage of people are victims of these effects, but I would venture to suggest that, near the top of most hierarchies - where the incompetent tend to cluster due to the Peter Principle - it is close to 100%

I am a programmer and computer consultant and I am skilled and realistic enough to know how many of the things I do could go horribly, catastrophically wrong. It's not that I am paralysed by indecision and fear of failure, but I am always aware of how fallible I am. Many people will be surprised to hear this because I am often categorised as being overconfident and maybe even arrogant, but beneath that optimistic veneer I am constantly haunted by the possibility of unforeseen negative consequences of anything I do.

While I might be overstating the case a little bit for dramatic effect it is true that my years of experience and knowledge of IT has given me a very healthy respect for what can go wrong and how one decision can so easily be wrong in hindsight.

But, as you might have gathered by now, this does not appear to be the case for those in positions of power. They, at least on the surface, appear to be totally confident in the decisions they take. Whether this confidence is real or just a way to compensate for some more deeply felt inadequacy, is hard to tell, but if we take the DKE seriously we should assume it is the former: that they really do believe they are competent, and perhaps even excellent, at what they are doing.

At this point you might think that these leaders would soon see that their actions have not resulted in as good outcomes as they expected and would revise their expectations downwards as a result. But that also doesn't seem to happen, because there are two mechanisms which avoid this realisation.

The first is self-delusion, where even apparently obvious problems are ignored. It is a bit like the captain of the Titanic saying "nothing to see here" as the water rises. And even if that fails there is always an endless supply of excuses for why things are sub-optimal. This usually involves blaming more junior staff for why the plans created by the senior people don't work. It's like the captain saying "why didn't you turn more quickly to avoid the iceberg?" when his order to do that was given too late.

So what is the solution? Well, it is hard to know, but while we have hierarchies there will always be incompetent people at the top. Maybe we need a new decision-making structure where there is no differentiation between expertise and decision-making. My personal preference is to completely eliminate the entire profession of management. I can't see any other way to rid the world of the people who are too stupid to know how stupid they really are.


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