We know less than we think

There is a scourge that is affecting America, one where men and women with little to show in the way of results somehow think they are better qualified and more capable than others, particularly those in positions of leadership. This phenomenon has a name; it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, named after the two researchers at Cornell who came up with the hypothesis.

Another similar effect is illusory superiority, a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their positive qualities and abilities and to underestimate their negative qualities, relative to others. We are all guilty of this from time to time. Where it becomes problematic is when it seriously impairs people’s ability to think critically and see events through a realistic lens, framed by perspective and self-awareness of this bias.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of the Boston Red Sox season, one that has been a disappointing, to say the least. The Boston fan base, at least revealed through forums like sports talk radio, is ready to blame everyone; players who have performed well in the past (like Dustin Pedroia), but more likely, manager Bobby Valentine, has been the brunt of most of the condemnation coming through the media the past six weeks, or so.

Valentine has certainly made mistakes and brings certain baggage to the table with him, but managing a Major League baseball team is much harder than it appears sitting in your armchair, in front of your large-screen television.

Last night, I listened to President Obama deliver his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Several times during his address, he mentioned that the solution to obvious national problems won’t be “quick and easy.”

This section of his speech was especially interesting to me:

I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy. I never have. You didn’t elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades. It will require common effort, shared responsibility, and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one. And by the way – those of us who carry on his party’s legacy should remember that not every problem can be remedied with another government program or dictate from Washington.

It was evocative of a former president, who told Americans that they faced tough choices and that the solution required work and determination, and possibly, accepting a different notion of what they expected life in America to be. That president was Jimmy Carter, and he didn’t get re-elected, losing to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. Reagan told Americans what they wanted to hear, or at least a narrative that was more palatable to an idea of never-ending growth.

My point isn’t about who the better choice for president is in 2012, but that being president is a difficult job that working in an office, driving a truck, or even, being a talk radio host doesn’t make you remotely qualified for.

Life requires tough choices. It necessitates honest assessment, and recognizing our short comings, as well as the areas where we’re strong. It also requires us to ward off delusional, or magical thinking. Unfortunately, politics tends to reward the latter.

The chattering that comes from all quarters of talk radio, particularly callers reminds me of the Bertrand Russell quote cited in the Wikipedia link for Dunning-Kruger, which is an apt snapshot of the phenomenon in action: “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.”