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The Dunning-Kruger Effect

From the Annals of Psychology

by DAVID MACARAY

Do conspicuously gifted people—people who are prodigiously and undeniably skilled—go around boasting of their abilities? I can understand them occasionally “showing off” just to confirm or re-establish their creds, but I can’t see them needing to brag about stuff. In other words, it’s hard to imagine Albert Einstein going around telling people that he was “fiercely intelligent.”

There is a phenomenon in psychology called the “Dunning–Kruger Effect.” It’s a theory that was developed, in 1999, by Dr. David Dunning and Dr. Justin Kruger, two Cornell University psychology professors.

Broadly speaking, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is defined as “a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability to recognize their [own] ineptitude.”

To be clear, this not to say we don’t need strong, resilient egos, or that a healthy sense of self-esteem isn’t essential to performing our most productive work. Indeed, most would agree that low self-esteem can be a real hindrance. I’m reminded of the Woody Allen joke about the guy who had such low self-esteem, that when he was drowning, another person’s life flashed before his eyes.

But when you read Dunning-Kruger, and consider its implications, you instantly think of Sarah Palin and Herman Cain. Palin was the short-term governor of Alaska, who ran for vice-president on the platform of getting the government out of our lives, even though Alaska had the highest per capita rate of government subsidy in the nation, and Herman Cain was a successful businessman who believed that by virtue of having been a former pizza maker, he was entitled to be president.

In Barbara Walters’ interview with Palin, she delicately mentioned the fact that people were “concerned” about Ms. Palin being put in a position where she could accede to the presidency. Palin’s face lit up with utter astonishment. “But why would they think that?!” she asked plaintively, without so much as a sliver of self-doubt. How could anyone think I wouldn’t make a great president? Her certitude was scary.

More weirdness: In 2012, when a goofy reporter asked Donald Trump if he planned to run for president in 2012, didn’t Trump answer him by saying, solemnly, “I don’t want to, but I may have to.” What a preposterous statement. To paraphrase the late Christopher Hitchens, if Donald Trump were given an enema before his funeral, they could bury him in a match box.

Think of any lightweight Republican politician, and imagine him or her as president. Take John Boehner, for example, the gutless, mealy-mouthed Speaker of the House, who can’t read the telephone book without being reduced to tears. Say what you will about Boehner—call him a clumsy, bumbling second-rate political hack—but compared to the likes of Palin, Cain and Trump, he’s Venerable Bede.

The next time we assume it’s simply a combination of inflated ego and wild-assed ambition that drives certain people to want to become president, we may want to reconsider. These people could actually be suffering from a metacognitive inability to recognize their own ineptitude. In which case, there’s an epidemic of it.

David Macaray is a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”).  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net