Illusory Superiority and the Confidence of Fools

2013-10-19 08:35

A few days ago I was reminded of a syndrome to emerge from a study by the Psychology Department at Cornell University in the late nineties. It related to a form of cognitive bias called “illusory superiority”, which can happen when incompetent people (predictably) perform tasks poorly and incompetently - but lack the competence to even realize their own incompetence. As a result they consider themselves to be much more competent than they really are.

If this sounds confusing, think of it in its crudest essence - as when someone is too stupid to realize they are stupid! It is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect or the Dunning-Kruger syndrome and is sometimes explained as being “when Incompetence begets Confidence”.

I noticed the term in a comment on an article called “Cosatu vs the IMF” by Douglas Gibson, in reference to IMF recommendation for the South African economy - and Cosatu’s response to the report. Of course, Cosatu roundly rejected the IMF’s proposals, referring to it as ‘this rabidly pro-capitalist, neoliberal organization' which they blamed for the ‘world capitalist crisis” and then went on - "Capitalism, and particularly free market capitalism, cannot be a solution to high unemployment rates and slow growth. Only through industrialisation, more state intervention and strategic nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy will we be able to meet our job creation targets."

All of which sounded little different from the launch manifesto of Juju Malema’s  EFFer’s a few weeks prior and the SA Communist Party’s similarly vacuous sentiments in support of Cosatu a short while later.

According to their collective view therefore, South Africa's economic ills have zero to do with labour inflexibility, and are unrelated to the need to increase productivity or curb excessive wage and other demands. Its view – notwithstanding the IMF’s cogent arguments and economic logic - is diametrically opposed to its proposals. To many it is difficult to understand how such logic - or the willful lack of any - can be sustained in an age so rich in information, where data and statistics are at hand and sophisticated diagnostic tools are available to all. Is it possible that such utterances came from people who woke up – Rip Van Winkle like – from a long sleep just after the Berlin Wall had come down and the Iron Curtain crumbled?

It is about the only way I can imagine the lessons of the 20th century passing them by. Or is there another explanation?

Well, yes. There is – and for that we return to Dunning and Kruger, mentioned earlier. This very in-your-face example of the syndrome as characterized in Cosatu's conduct, is one amongst many in South African public life and - as often as not - the elephant in the room is the trade union movement.

It is an elephant that from time to time provides some good laughs – with my personal favourite being trade unions marching to protest unemployment and job losses. They undertake these periodically without blanching, with no hint of embarrassment and without the causes of their problem being recognized. The march itself is all important and if they get enough people involved, a bit of violence might get thrown in for good measure.

On the other hand I find the issue of minimum wages (a union hardy annual) simultaneously tragic and comical. The notion of resource limitation escapes their grasp entirely. Neither are the disastrous consequences for society’s most vulnerable – those who lose their jobs and join grant recipient queues – ever considered.  It is bemusing how the most basic of arithmetic assignments – i.e. dividing a number (a wage budget) by a larger number than the one you first had (the wage rate, now increased through legislation) - could not result in a smaller quotient or number (of workers) being employed, and result in unemployment.

Apart from explaining such outcomes, the Dunning-Kruger Effect also applies to our education regime, where the unions cannot connect the dots between the forced retention (courtesy of Sadtu) of incompetent teachers and bad exam results; nor between a resistance to school inspectors and continuing poor education. Instead – and in collaboration with government itself – education standards are compromised to maintain nice looking pass statistics that keep union members and MPs happy, but turn our matric qualification into a joke.

The same principle applies to all aspects of the social engineering for which we are noted as a nation.

Because racial representation is considered de rigueur and a necessary form of restitution, laws are enacted that do harm and ignore consequences to ordinary people because there is scant regard for merit. Sub-optimal and often downright incompetent people are placed in important positions where their inability to perform is indulged and results in real damage to society. The most obvious example is, once again education, where the legacy of mismanagement endures without respite. (There are plenty of others too of course – like Eskom’s flaky power generating capacity, the condition of many of the country’s roads, our imploding public health care system and a corrupt police force – to mention a few).

The process by which public education was despoiled epitomizes the syndrome.

In the mid nineties, when government offered the best and most experienced teachers the nation had at its disposal “the package” to encourage them to exit the profession (at taxpayers’ expense), it was displaying the “Illusory Superiority” referred to by Dunning-Kruger. And when they substituted those teachers with unionized dummies, they took the syndrome to new heights, with dire consequences for the profession, education and the nation’s future.

Today 23000 out of 28000 state schools are estimated to be dysfunctional or seriously compromised.

Today the Dunning Kruger Effect is culturally internalised to the point that, when state incumbents are challenged, they actively defend the sorry state of the nation’s education, economy, service delivery and any facet of state one cares to name – and place the blame elsewhere. In the process they invoke ideologies and political dogmas long disproven and discredited – but which happen to provide the elite with a ruling platform. It is a living case study of Illusory Superiority – and on a national scale!

All of which causes me to wonder about something. Is it not just possible that a time might come when unreasonable and gratuitous stupidity could be classified as a crime against humanity?

Surely there must be a case for it.


AB praises selfless skipper

2010-11-21 18:15

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