Excepts From Interviews with David Dunning and V.S. Ramachandran
Many have argued that human rationality grants us special access to the depths of psychological and metaphysical realities. Current advances in social psychology, neurology and cognitive science are beginning to demonstrate otherwise. For all its usefulness human cognition is full of bias, errors and wayward tendencies that limit as much as liberate us.
For example, in 1999 Cornell professor of social psychology David Dunning and his graduate student, Justin Kruger, published, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments.” In their paper Dunning and Kruger argued that when faced with complex tasks and decision-making incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence. This became known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. And in 2010 The New York Times’ Errol Morris interviewed David Dunning, as well as celebrated neuroscience V.S. Ramachandran, about some of the implications of humans being systematically “blind” to their own capacities. Excerpts below:
DAVID DUNNING: Well, my specialty is decision-making. How well do people make the decisions they have to make in life? And I became very interested in judgments about the self, simply because, well, people tend to say things, whether it be in everyday life or in the lab, that just couldn’t possibly be true. And I became fascinated with that. Not just that people said these positive things about themselves, but they really, really believed them. Which led to my observation: if you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.
ERROL MORRIS: Why not?
DAVID DUNNING: If you knew it, you’d say, “Wait a minute. The decision I just made does not make much sense. I had better go and get some independent advice.” But when you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is. In logical reasoning, in parenting, in management, problem solving, the skills you use to produce the right answer are exactly the same skills you use to evaluate the answer. And so we went on to see if this could possibly be true in many other areas. And to our astonishment, it was very, very true.
ERROL MORRIS: Many other areas?
DAVID DUNNING: If you look at our 1999 article, we measured skills where we had the right answers. Grammar, logic. And our test-subjects were all college students doing college student-type things. Presumably, they also should know whether or not they’re getting the right answers. And yet, we had these students who were doing badly in grammar, who didn’t know they were doing badly in grammar. We believed that they should know they were doing badly, and when they didn’t, that really surprised us.
ERROL MORRIS: The students that were unaware they were doing badly — in what sense? Were they truly oblivious? Were they self-deceived? Were they in denial? How would you describe it?
DAVID DUNNING: There have been many psychological studies that tell us what we see and what we hear is shaped by our preferences, our wishes, our fears, our desires and so forth. We literally see the world the way we want to see it. But the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that there is a problem beyond that. Even if you are just the most honest, impartial person that you could be, you would still have a problem — namely, when your knowledge or expertise is imperfect, you really don’t know it. Left to your own devices, you just don’t know it. We’re not very good at knowing what we don’t know.