The Dunning-Kruger Effect… Or Why is my Boss an Idiot?

Darwin said “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”. If you’ve ever missed out on a promotion or job because of inflated claims on a CV, this is probably painfully familiar. If you know someone who on the outside is very successful, maybe talks a good game but is based on little actual substance, again this is probably familiar. If you’ve experienced work stress because of management decisions that seem great on paper, which in reality just don’t work… this is why. I’d put money on you having had some experience with the Dunning-Kruger effect. I bet you’ve felt the sharp end of it. 

So what is it? The Dunning-Kruger effect is the name we give to the cognitive bias where people make decisions or conclusions that are problematic, but they lack the metacognitive ability to see this. In other words, confidence is caused by ignorance. Ouch. This is based on David Dunning and Justin Kruger’s research in 1999 where they rated participants on humour, grammar and logic. They found was that those who ranked towards the bottom of the group tended to overestimate their own competence; those in the 12thpercentile believed they were in the 62nd. This isn’t a one-off phenomenon; it’s even been observed in medical knowledge among surgeons.  

The repercussions of this are interesting. In one sense, it’s kinda horrifying to see how real-life, high up decision-making can be so fallible. The problem with cognitive biases is that no-one’s exempt; we’re all prone to them. Donald Trump claims to solve problems “with very little knowledge other than the I knowledge I [already] had” (for more on this, read the fascinating Washinton Post article by Angela Fritz). Many people bemoan the decisions of leadership and management at work, but in the light of the Dunning-Kruger effect, we can at least understand why leaders and managers who aren’t present on the ground-level make decisions that don’t accommodate those painfully obvious factors that many see.

Can we prevent confidence based on ignorance? Probably not. (I say this in the full knowledge that I’m giving you a quick read on this in an essentially light and fluffy manner, making it seem very simple, while there is a whole body of research on this that I’ve not examined that will no doubt reveal many factors and influences on this that I’ve not considered.) However, we can question what we tell ourselves and ensure that we continue learning. In Dunning and Kruger’s research, increasing the level of knowledge in the participants led to more insight into their limits. We should presume that any opinion we have is merely that, an opinion; merely formed on a partial understanding of facts and an unhealthy dose of bias, and more than likely one we’re oddly resistant to questioning. With this in mind, being open to alternative views is essential. We should also look out our solutions to complex situations that seem frustratingly simple… Brexit, anyone?

Let’s side-track a little here and look at some of the uncomfortable truths that we know about decision making in groups. When groups need to reach a consensus, many members put their own opinions aside as a sacrifice for group harmony. Put simply, they back down when they feel that they’re not being heard, afraid of rejection or just aren’t that committed to the discussion. This leads to groupthink, a psychological phenomenon where non-optimal suggestions are made, and then followed through by the rest of the group though a lack of dissent. Now consider the role of group polarisation; groups are likely to make decisions that are more extreme than their initial ideas following discussion. As if this wasn’t enough to make you sweat about what’s happening inside those management meetings behind closed doors, the risky shift phenomenon suggests that people may think about risk differently in groups than when alone. In groups, we are bolstered by others and more likely to make risky decisions due to the shared responsibility. A quick look through political history will give many examples of questionable decisions that seem a just little more understandable when we look at them on a human level.

It may be that lowering expectations of those who aim to lead and manage us is the key to reducing stress in these situations. If we expect decisions to be made based on rational thought and a thorough consideration of all the surrounding factors purely because someone is a leader, we’re expecting too much. It’s not personal. It’s just how group dynamics impact decisions. This is the path towards frustration and an easy way to feel resentful of our own position, lack of recognition and the basis of those in power. Instead, assessing how much of the current situation is in our control and letting go of the rest may be the most psychologically healthy response. That and a small, managed dose of coffee, cake, wine shopping or whatever you choose to self-medicate yourself with; we’re only human, after all.

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