When I was a freshman in college, I was assigned â€œReflections on the Revolution in Franceâ€ by Edmund Burke. I loathed the book. Burke argued that each individualâ€™s private stock of reason is small and that political decisions should be guided by the accumulated wisdom of the ages. Change is necessary, Burke continued, but it should be gradual, not disruptive. For a young democratic socialist, hoping to help begin the world anew, this seemed like a reactionary retreat into passivity.
Over the years, I have come to see that Burke had a point. The political history of the 20th century is the history of social-engineering projects executed by well-intentioned people that began well and ended badly. There were big errors like communism, but also lesser ones, like a Vietnam War designed by the best and the brightest, urban renewal efforts that decimated neighborhoods, welfare policies that had the unintended effect of weakening families and development programs that left a string of white elephant projects across the world.
I was no longer a liberal. Liberals are more optimistic about the capacity of individual reason and the governmentâ€™s ability to execute transformational change. They have more faith in the power of social science, macroeconomic models and 10-point programs.
Individual reason (computing power) is limited by the experience, capacity (hardware) and discipline (software) of the individual.
Few of us are fit to be brain surgeons, but almost all of us think we could be.
The tendency that people have to overrate their abilities fascinates Cornell University social psychologist David Dunning, PhD. “People overestimate themselves,” he says, “but more than that, they really seem to believe it. I’ve been trying to figure out where that certainty of belief comes from.”
In a series of studies reported in the December 1999 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 77, No. 6), he and co-author Justin Kruger, PhD, then a Cornell graduate student and now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, examined the idea that ignorance is at the root of some self-inflation.
In another article in the January issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 84, No. 1), Dunning and Cornell doctoral candidate Joyce Ehrlinger describe four studies revealing a potential source of people’s errors in self-judgment: their longstanding views of their talents and abilities. Depending on which measure the team looked at, such self-views were equally or more related to performance estimates than to their performance itself, and these self-views often produced errors in their reporting on how well they had just performed.
One antidote to inaccurate self-assessment is high-quality feedback, Dunning says.
So stupid people think they’re smart because they lacked the smarts to notice they weren’t performing intelligently, and once they’ve thought this and it goes unchallenged, they take it as dogma.
On the other hand, smarter people have more experience with failure, so are more realistic in their self-assessments.
This is why we need to compile knowledge and test ourselves against it constantly so that we know where we stand, and so we shape our brains for our appropriate place in a social hierarchy.