Can ineptness rob people of mental ability to realise how inept they are?

Published: July 1, 2019 1:04:55 AM

Their misconceptions about themselves with regard to self-cognitive abilities blinds them from seeing errors; also, their incompetence denies them to recognise others’ strengths.

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Vidya Hattangadi

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in some people who have an inflated notion about their capabilities. Their self-assessment with regard to their knowledge and decision-making reaches elusive heights. They make erroneous decisions. When such people take important leadership positions, they obstruct progress of the organisation. Their misconceptions about themselves with regard to self-cognitive abilities blinds them from seeing errors; also, their incompetence denies them to recognise others’ strengths. The concept was coined in 1999 by Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger; the eponymous (named after persons) Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias. Incompetent people have an exaggerated notion about their knowledge and intelligence, it blights results and sometimes such results take decades to correct.

I take the example of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s decision of referring Kashmir to the UNSC. This action negated the Instrument of Accession signed by Maharaja Hari Singh. Even till today, the Kashmir issue remains sticky. Besides India and Pakistan, it has many sides: the five regions of Kashmir and numerous political organisations.

Charles Darwin said that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than what knowledge does.” I am sure most of us would have experienced frustration by the incompetence of another person in our professional and private lives. The frustration increases when these incompetent people do not recognise their own limitations. Incompetent people tend to overestimate their own levels of skills and they fail to recognise genuine skills in others.

Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ showcases his total lack of insight into his own limitations. A budding narcissist, Hitler’s recounting of his schooling describes his propensity to argue with adults despite not having yet received his education. This is an apt example of his cognitive bias.

In an experiment, Dunning and Kruger asked 65 participants to rate how funny different jokes were. Some participants were exceptionally poor at determining what other people would find funny, yet these same participants described themselves as excellent judges of humour. The research found that incompetent people are not only poor performers, they are also unable to accurately review and recognise the quality of their own work. The low performers are unable to recognise the skills and competence levels of others, which is part of the reason why they every time view themselves as better, more capable and more knowledgeable than others.

This might be the reason why some students who earn failing scores in exams at times feel they deserved a much higher score. They overrate their own knowledge and ability, and are incompetent of seeing the mediocrity of their performance.

In 1708, Sweden invaded Russia during a winter so fierce that even Venice’s port froze. The invaders lost 16,000 men in that particular push. Just over 100 years later, Napoleon also attempted an invasion that began in the summer. By late fall, he’d lost thousands of soldiers and, although he succeeded in occupying Moscow, he eventually had to retreat. The most famous example, however, is of the Second World War. Hitler believed he could take Russia before the onset of the winter—and his army wasn’t ready when the Russian winter finally did come. In fact, things went so poorly in Russia that Hitler lost about 750,000 men before November.

Dunning and Kruger put forward that this phenomenon stems from what they refer to as a “dual burden.” People are inept, and their ineptness robs them of the mental ability to realise just how inept they are. The least skilled people often overrate their ability because they have no idea how much they don’t know. In other words, poor performers believe that they know everything on a particular subject and, therefore, they tend to be bombastic about it. In contrast, high performers are aware of the enormity and intricacies of the field they are working in. They know how much they don’t know, and thus they usually underestimate their ability and competence in a particular area.

The Dunning-Kruger effect also has to do with what scientists call metacognition. It is described as “cognition about cognition,” “thinking about thinking,” and “knowing about knowing.” It is a higher form of cognition; to be aware of the awareness itself. A person with a high level of metacognition is able to become aware of his or her thought processes and view them from different and fresh perspectives. This cognition about cognition allows them to analyse and judge their ideas, knowledge and skills more accurately compared to people who are having difficulties with metacognition.

The world is filled with incompetent leaders in all fields; often, leadership positions seem glamorous but the crude reality is that many leaders hardly make any effect on their teams. When stupid leaders run a country, an organisation, a hospital, a school or a university, they weaken the foundations. If someone is going to run a country properly, he/she needs to be an expert at collecting viewpoints, appointing experts and sieving through them to produce effective and well-judged policy objectives that actually work. In the absence of that sort of expertise, only chaos will be created. Aren’t we seeing this happening in most parts of the world?

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