In the American cartoonist Charles M. Schulz’s famous comic strip Peanuts, there is a character called Lucy Van Pelt. She’s a young girl who is a friend of the strip’s main character Charlie Brown. Brown is an intelligent and sensitive kid who seems to have more knowledge about things compared to all the other Peanuts characters. But he is modest.
The strip had a running gag in which Lucy would confidently utter incorrect information about things to her younger brother. This infuriated Brown, but he would be shut out and made to feel ignorant by the complete confidence with which Lucy delivers her suspect ‘knowledge.’
This is an example of what social psychologists call the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It is when individuals with little knowledge about a topic will be, paradoxically, the most confident that they know a lot about the topic.*
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is named after two American social psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger. In 1999, they conducted a study which concluded that incompetence does not only produce poor performance, but also the inability to recognise that one’s performance was poor.
Those most oblivious to their own ignorance are often the ones who loudly proclaim to be experts on matters they actually know little to nothing about
The American political scientist Ian Anson has explored the presence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect in politics. He headed a study published in the journal Political Psychology in April 2018. Anson devised a method to apply the theory of the Effect to the subject of political knowledgeability.
He floated a questionnaire through which he quizzed 2,606 adults, asking them various questions about American politics. After thoroughly evaluating the responses, he concluded that those who performed worse were more likely to overestimate their performance. According to Anson, partisan dispositions taken by competing political parties intensifies the Effect.
Information provided by the parties is often biased and concocted to strengthen their narratives. But this information is treated as being authentic by a lot of their supporters, especially by those with little knowledge.
In the face of information coming from an opposing party and its adherents, supporters become even more partisan and overconfident about information coming from their party of choice. This, despite the fact that flawed information and knowledge is regularly debunked. But the debunking process is often perceived as a politically motivated way to falsify a ‘truth’.
Polemical battles produce versions of ‘facts’ that are largely engineered. They are used as ploys to popularise particular worldviews. If any of the engineered facts are challenged by a more detached, objective and knowledgeable source, that source is attacked for having suspect motives.
The onslaught not only comes from the engineers, but also from the supporters of the resulting worldviews. In a polemical setting, the supporters are pressed to exhibit supreme confidence in what they believe, no matter how convincing the evidence against it.
Thus, the Dunning-Kruger Effect happens when someone is ignorant of their own ignorance, but are overconfident in their knowledge or abilities. Not all politicians are cynical manipulators, twisting a known fact and replacing it with a faulty one. They may actually believe the faulty fact to be true.
In the US, some commentators called the Trump incumbency the ‘Dunning-Kruger Presidency.’ Anson noted that, not only were Trump’s supporters exhibiting signs of the Effect, but the president too. The American columnist Martie Sirois wrote that Trump was “pretty much an imbecile in everything, only he didn’t know he’s an imbecile.”
According to Anson, “Trump appeared to opine incredibly confidently about topics he appeared to know little about.” Indeed, populists are notorious for exaggerating things and even outright lying. But they are most likely conscious of this.
However, there are enough examples which demonstrate that populists such as Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Imran Khan, while blurting incorrect information, probably believed that what they were saying was correct.
Accepting one’s ignorance about some topics can be a humble trait, but this does not bode well with the image that populist politicians shape for themselves.
Anson also noticed — during the 2016 US presidential election — that many commentators and analysts (especially on social media) too were showing signs of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Anson found their “analyses” as “bombastic”. By this he meant they were riddled with exaggerations and superficial knowledge of America’s political process and history.
This is quite evident in the political analyst circles of Pakistan as well. Recently, after Khan was ousted as prime minister and was striving to overthrow the government that had replaced him, a majority of analysts were of the view that he would succeed. He didn’t. Only a handful of political commentators were able to see that he would fail.
The difference between the two views was that the latter one was coming from those who were well aware of how politics in general, and of Pakistan in particular, plays out. They had good historical knowledge and more reliable contemporary sources.
Others seem to have been caught in the polemical battle between Khan’s party and the government. Add to this a weak knowledge of politics and history and you either end up being an inadvertent propagandist, or very naive.
But just as humbly claiming ignorance does look good on populists, many analysts who have flooded social media believe the same. Drawing room chatter, gossip and rumours are their primary sources, and their superficial knowledge about history and the dynamics of local politics is their undoing.
And when the more ‘neutral’ ones among this lot couldn’t get the result that they were predicting, they began to deliver lectures on the ‘immoral cynicism’ of the final outcome. This again exhibits a lack of knowledge of what politics is. It is neither moral nor immoral. It is amoral. Politics is not about a contest between good and evil, but between contesting strands of the smart and the clever.
‘Principled politics’ is not about being nice and transparent — it is about following the rules of the game laid down by the competing parties. Any party not following these rules, no matter how moralistic it is posing itself to be, is the one operating from the wrong end.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect in this case is that, probably, the party is not even aware of this.
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 27th, 2022