Narcissistic ignorance and a more productive you

Getty Images

You might have observed a common feature of the new age activist to be a potent lack of charisma. Ready-made phrases half-remembered, delivered with the aimless gusto of a squirrel with vertigo. Passionate speeches presented clumsily. The best of them are sloppy regurgitations and the worst of them are unintelligible.

Lately, it seems we’re encouraged to supplant acknowledgment of our shortcomings with distractions and oversimplifications. Freedom of expression has been redefined as a celebration of ignorance – one that is governed by an enmity toward expertise. Working in tandem with this is the societal effect of the degradation of language Orwell warned us about more than 70 years ago.


Follow Ladders on Flipboard!

Follow Ladders’ magazines on Flipboard covering Happiness, Productivity, Job Satisfaction, Neuroscience, and more!


A vulgar misunderstanding of terms like “democracy” has curbed forward thought and dispelled the notion of appraising opinions. The youthful impulse to hold mavens to the fire isn’t itself a problem. A problem only arises when the impulse ceases to be attended by research and self-awareness. Being informed is a long painful, humbling process.

Authority is not a virtue earned lightly.

“Unskilled and unaware”

I recently wrote about the pluralistic ignorance of imposter syndrome-the idea that everyone feels alone in their self-doubt. This collective lack of confidence is certainly a hindrance to a productive labor system but the other end of the cognitive spectrum is just as detrimental. This other end was officially classified in response to the comical misfortune of a man named Mcarthur Wheeler.

In 1995, Wheeler robbed two banks in Pittsburgh- in broad daylight. As he exited the banks (both of them) he made a point to smile at surveillance cameras-without a mask. He did, however, have a coat of lemon juice on his face. When authorities caught him they showed him the security footage. Wheeler’s reaction was one of utter bemusement.

Given that lemon juice is sometimes used as an ingredient when creating invisible ink it stands to “reason” that bathing one’s face in the stuff would effectively conceal it from cameras. Wheeler wasn’t under the influence of any substances nor was he clinically insane.

This profound error of judgment alerted the interest of psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The two soon after conducted studies to explore the Illusion of superiority instanced by Wheeler- inspiring the label: The Dunning Kruger effect.

The Dunning Kruger effect refers to the unearned sense of mastery expressed by those of low ability; a misunderstanding of aptitude energized by a lack of base level knowledge.

Dunning and Kruger began inspecting the condition with a pool of undergraduate students. After presenting them with a series of cognitive tasks they would ask the students how well they thought they did. Those that scored the lowest consistently overestimated how well they did by a significant margin.

The effect doesn’t just apply to academia. Similar experiments conducted at a gun range birthed the same results. Another study asked software engineers at two companies to evaluate their performance. 32% of the employees at one company and 42% of employees at the other company rated themselves in the top 5%.

It’s not merely a matter of overconfidence. It’s a blind defiance of logic. The more incompetent you are, the more vulnerable you are to mistakes of self-perception.

“A Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”

Tom Nichols detailed a potential cause pretty powerfully in his book back in 2017. The Death Of Expertise describes the mass rejection of science and rationality. Nichols correctly suggests that the right we all have to speech has blunted our ability to properly assess its value. In some instances, some people’s import is worth more than others. That’s an important and obvious distinction to make.

“Doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is silly.” Charitable.

Our rabid antipathy toward experts partly owes itself to our collective masochism-particularly when it comes to progress.  We have a long way to go in the fields of science and epistemology. I understand the tendency to focus on the “lack ofs” that is bred out of frustration, but we’ve made some considerable strides. That’s undeniable. It is objectively lucky to born in the year 2019.

Every plane that doesn’t crash, every person that doesn’t die from this or from that is a testament to our trajectory and a plea to adhere to the counsel of those that have put in the work and time in their respective fields.

A hesitance to request honest feedback, and a commitment to the idea that pundits don’t exist, is heartening drab dialogue. On a selfish level, narcissistic ignorance has made many of us incredibly boring and unproductive. You can’t concurrently harbor a fear of failure and a passion for enlightenment. Just like you can’t have a proper shave without a mirror.

Metacognition

In closing, I’d like to share some thoughts on thoughts; i.e. the only thing keeping me from being a horrible writer is the awareness that I’m, at best, a pretty bad one.

The process of evaluating the extent of what you do and do not know falls under the umbrella of a term coined by a developmental psychologist named John Flavell, in 1976: metacognition, “thinking about thinking.”

It’s the cycle of scrutiny and surveillance that equips us with instruments of self-improvement. The idea that because information is so readily available expertise is just a free afternoon away is both quixotic and cynical. Reading a Wikipedia article about existentialism with the expectation of becoming erudite is like eating an apple without a stomach and expecting the nutrients.

Like Nichols states, intuitive knowledge is more complicated than memory retention. Lived experiences matter.

Skepticism isn’t itself the issue. In fact, true progress requires a healthy dose of it. Not on its own though. Pyrrhonism is a highly reactive property. Coupling it with deliberation, and a clear understanding of individual strengths and weaknesses, promotes it considerably.

We have much more to learn from the failure of experts than we do from the critique of fools.


You might also enjoy…