Thursday, September 2, 2010
When Stupid People don't Know that They are Stupid: Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor Rally and the Dunning-Kruger Effect
The masses are asses. We know this. But the level of ignorance displayed by the attendees at the "Restoring Honor" rally is shocking even by contemporary standards.
It is quite clear that Glenn Beck is a master propagandist with a chilling and Svengali-like power over the lemmings of the New Right. Beck-watching is compelling (to me at least) because his popularity is a barometer of the toxins in our political atmosphere. Moreover, I wonder if Beck's followers would be so slavish as to follow him off a cliff, and to what extremes would the tea party brigands go in their devotion to his cult of personality.
To point, here is a little armchair sociology to help put Beck and the New Right's devotees into a broader context:
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which an unskilled person makes poor decisions and reaches erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to realize their mistakes. The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. This leads to the situation in which less competent people rate their own ability higher than more competent people. It also explains why actual competence may weaken self-confidence: because competent individuals falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. "Thus, 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."
The Dunning–Kruger effect was put forward by Justin Kruger and David Dunning. Similar notions have been expressed–albeit less scientifically–for some time. Dunning and Kruger themselves quote Charles Darwin ("Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge") and Bertrand Russell ("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."
The Dunning–Kruger effect is not, however, concerned narrowly with high-order cognitive skills (much less their application in the political realm during a particular era, which is what Russell was talking about.Nor is it specifically limited to the observation that ignorance of a topic is conducive to overconfident assertions about it, which is what Darwin was saying. Indeed, Dunning et al. cite a study saying that 94% of college professors rank their work as "above average" (relative to their peers), to underscore that the highly intelligent and informed are hardly exempt. Rather, the effect is about paradoxical defects in perception of skill, in oneself and others, regardless of the particular skill and its intellectual demands, whether it is chess, playing golf or driving a car.
The hypothesized phenomenon was tested in a series of experiments performed by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, then both of Cornell University. Kruger and Dunning noted earlier studies suggesting that ignorance of standards of performance is behind a great deal of incompetence. This pattern was seen in studies of skills as diverse as reading comprehension, operating a motor vehicle, and playing chess or tennis.
Kruger and Dunning proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:
1. tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
2. fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
3. fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
4. recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they can be trained to substantially improve.