Our Dunning-Kruger President
Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough reveals quite a bit about the reasons for our “president’s” numerous pathologies (I’m basing this on interviews and reviews, I have yet to read it). Ms. Trump is not only the “president’s” niece, but also a clinical psychologist, giving her critique some gravitas. An earlier BLAST noted how our current Chief Executive is a prime example of the Peter Principle and has been promoted at least one level above his competence --- but that’s a theory based on studies of business and is not concerned with psychology. Mary Trump’s book has opened a door that allows us to peek into the why Donald Trump is who he is psychologically and there is, of course, much made about his relationship with his father (Freud is cheering this on, no doubt). What I would like to focus on is another psychological study, one that hasn’t been given enough attention, in my opinion, particularly because it so clearly applies to this Commander-in-Tweet.
According to Wikipedia: In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability. Without the self-awareness of metacognition, people cannot objectively evaluate their competence or incompetence.
It does not take a keen critical intellect to see how the current occupant of the White House seems the perfect embodiment of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Examine the phrase “people with low ability . . . .overestimate their ability. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability. People who are intelligent and competent do not need to tell people, over and over again, that they are, indeed, intelligent (“a very stable genius”) or even competent (“I have the best words”). Many of my closest friends are lifelong educators and we all believe --- and Mary Trump states this in her book --- that Donald Trump has undiagnosed learning disabilities. If, in fact, he is such a “stable genius” why are his high school and college transcripts “off limits?” Trump lacks metacognition --- “awareness and understanding of one's own thought processes (Google dictionary).” Within that deficit, his Dunning-Kruger tendencies are amplified. Again, from Wikipedia:
In 2011, Dunning wrote about his observations that people with substantial, measurable deficits in their knowledge or expertise lack the ability to recognize those deficits and, therefore, despite potentially making error after error, tend to think they are performing competently when they are not: "In short, those who are incompetent, for lack of a better term, should have little insight into their incompetence—an assertion that has come to be known as the Dunning–Kruger effect" (bold, mine)
Watching Trump’s miserable attempt at leadership during this coronavirus pandemic --- making error after error --- perfectly illustrates how he is the embodiment of Dunning-Kruger. In much the same way, Trump’s followers, his devoted “base” also seem to be Dunning-Kruger characters themselves. In August of 2018, Psychology Today published an article written by Bobby Azarian, Ph.D. entitled:
The Dunning-Kruger Effect May Help Explain Trump's Support
A new study suggests some people grossly overestimate their political knowledge.
Rather than summarizing that article, I’ll simply provide some of the most striking quotes from it here.
A new study published in the journal Political Psychology carried out by the political scientist Ian Anson at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, not only found that the Dunning-Kruger effect applies to politics, but it also appears to be exacerbated when partisan identities are made more salient. In other words, those who score low on political knowledge tend to overestimate their expertise even more when greater emphasis is placed on political affiliation.
In order to have a large and representative sample of subjects, Dr. Anson administered online surveys to over 2,600 Americans. The first survey was designed to assess political knowledge, while the second was used to examine how confident they were in their knowledge. Questions quizzed participants on topics like names of cabinet members, the length of term limits for members of Congress, and the names of programs that the U.S. government spends the least on.
As predicted, the results showed that those who scored low on political knowledge were also the ones who overestimated their level of knowledge. But that wasn’t all. When participants were given cues that made them engage in partisan thought, the Dunning-Kruger effect was made even stronger. This occurred with both Republicans and Democrats, but only in those who scored low on political knowledge to begin with.
While the results of Anson’s study suggest that being uninformed leads to overconfidence across the political spectrum, studies have shown that Democrats now tend to be more educated than Republicans, possibly making the latter more vulnerable to the Dunning-Kruger effect. In fact, a Pew Research Center poll released in March of this year found that 54 percent of college graduates identified as Democrats or leaned Democratic, compared to 39 percent who identified or leaned Republican.
This effect may help explain why certain Trump supporters seem to be so easily tricked into believing proven falsehoods when the President delivers what have become known as “alternative facts,” often using language designed to activate partisan identities. Because they lack knowledge but are confident that they do not, they may be less likely than others to actually fact-check the claims that the President makes.
This speculation is supported by evidence from empirical studies. In 2016, an experiment found that 45 percent of Republicans believed that the Affordable Care Act included “death panels,” and a 2015 study similarly found that 54 percent of Republican primary voters believed then-president Barack Obama to be a Muslim.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is particularly worrisome when considering issues that pose existential threats, like global warming. A 2017 study conducted at the University of New Hampshire, for instance, found that only 25 percent of self-described Trump supporters believed that human activities contribute to climate change—although 97 percent of scientists who study climate change agree that they do.
While this probably confirms what many of us already believe, it is a bit frightening to see an actual study that affirms that belief. Trump, with support from conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones and disinformation-mongers like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, feeds off of, and feeds his “base” with, pathological lying while blowing racist dog-whistles. It is surprising, really, that we have not heard more about the Dunning-Kruger Effect during the last three and a half years. We are watching a Peter Principle President who is also the embodiment of “illusory superiority” who believes he is operating competently. It is time for journalists, for those in the media, to demand Trump provide answers when he bloviates about “many people are saying” and “I’ve heard” and “a friend of mine”. WHO are these “many people?” WHERE did he “hear” the bullshit he promulgates? WHAT’s the NAME of this “friend” he’s telling the story about?
I don’t doubt that in Donald Trump’s addled Dunning-Kruger mind he does hear things and believes “people are saying” things and many of his imaginary friends are doing and saying the things he claims --- the point being this is all part of Trump’s addled mind! He is learning disabled. He cannot read. He lacks metacognition. He lacks empathy and compassion. He cannot conceive of any situation in which he is not the center of everything. And he cares only for material gain. He is shallow, callow, ignorant, and selfish --- yet believes he is a “stable genius.” Trump and many of his followers are classic examples of the Dunning-Kruger Effect --- and it is time we call them out.
(On a lighter note, here are a couple of links from the Ig Noble Awards –to their Incompetence Opera with a special recognition of the Peter Principle and the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Here are the links:
"The Dunning–Kruger Song", from The Incompetence Opera. YouTube.com. ImprobableResearch. 15 January 2018. Retrieved 18 January2018.
The Incompetence Opera. YouTube.com. ImprobableResearch. 29 December 2017. Retrieved 18 January 2018.)
PLEASE NOTE: This BLAST owes a huge "Thank You" to the Lovely Carol Marie, who introduced me to the Dunning-Kruger Effect!
Thanks for reading. Stay safe. Wear your mask. Wash your hands.