Denialism, Self-Delusion and the Non-Delivery Factor
Vrydag, 05 November 2010 15:31
It is dawning on South Africa that there are two very separate and distinct mindsets at work in the country, and it seems never the twain will meet. Newspaper columns and letter pages, as well as talk shows and phone-ins, are replete with what “should be done” and ”why is this not done?” and the now over-used word “unbelievable”, from citizens aghast at the unfathomable behaviour of the ruling classes.
The logic of one mindset is not the logic of the other. Who would think that after the abysmal failure of the South African land redistribution programme, the government would continue with it, albeit under different guises? Who would believe that after wantonly destroying Zimbabwe and rendering his people to grinding penury, the South African government would ask the United Nations to lift sanctions against Zimbabwe’s president, a perpetrator of human rights atrocities? Who can fathom a government that month after month - indeed year after year - places advertisements for desperately-needed municipal staff, stipulating that they are “equal opportunity employers”, meaning skilled whites need not apply?
How is it that despite embarrassing service delivery failures, the wholesale plunder of taxpayers’ money by tenderpreneurs and government employees, the nepotism, the lowering of standards in health and education, the failing feeding schemes and the abuse of the social welfare system, the miscreants simply carry on as if nothing happened. There is no shame, no sense of accountability to those who pay them and indeed to South Africa as a nation. Indeed, when many are fired for incompetence, mismanagement or fraud, or all three, they go to court to demand huge payouts that they believe are their due! Denialism is at work here, and this brings us to an interesting explanation of this phenomenon now doing the Wikipedia rounds: the Dunning-Kruger effect.
THE D K EFFECT
Wikipedia reports that Justin Kruger and David Dunning of the USA’s Cornell University first performed a series of experiments in 1999 which suggested that ignorance of standards of performance is behind a great deal of incompetence. One of their 2000 reports was entitled “Unskilled and Unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments”.
They say that for a given skill, incompetent people will, inter alia,
- tend to overestimate their own level of skill
- fail to recognize genuine skill in others
- fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy
They conclude that poor performers do not learn from feedback that suggests a need to improve.
Wikipedia gives numerous examples of others who have completed works in this field, including Bertrand Russell’s “The Triumph of Stupidity” (1933) and other more current academic writings about “Why the unskilled are unaware: Further explorations of (absent) self-insight among the incompetent” (Ehrlinger) and “among the inept, researchers discover ignorance is bliss” (Goode). Many of these findings have been widely published in the US national media, including the New York Times.
These syndromes of denialism and self-delusion are pervasive within SA’s ruling and BEE classes. People blithely take on a job that everyone knows they cannot do, but which they themselves don’t seem to realize they cannot do! We see this in the land redistribution policy where beneficiaries agree to run productive farms when they know they are incapable of doing so. They then blame the government, or mentors, or each other. We see someone in an expensive suit perched on the corner of an expensive desk being photographed as the new CEO, or the incoming “human resources manager”, or the new chairman of an organization. In many cases, this person is a token, it is well known that he is a token, but the subject himself seems to think he’s entitled to be there!
Self-delusion and denialism are not new in South Africa. A report in the magazine YOU of 12 October 1995 revealed the degradation of small towns that had once thrived in the erstwhile Transkei. After the ANC took over in 1994, the decay set in and the town of Butterworth, for example, was described as “a wreck, with littered garbage in the streets and potholed roads. The century old town hall is neglected and the parks are overrun with weeds and rubbish.” Corruption, bad management and political infighting had taken their toll, said the article. Municipal management was “abysmal” and a debt of R50 million had already accrued. Nobody was paying for municipal services. Shortly after he arrived, the town clerk gave himself a salary raise R126,000 a year - from R20 000. (This pattern of deterioration repeated itself all over the old Transkei, and has been replayed all over South Africa since then).
SHAME AND APOLOGIES?
Was there any public acknowledgement by the ANC that it was not on top of the job, any requests for help, any promises to mend its corrupt ways?
On the contrary, denialism was the aggrieved reaction. Then President Nelson Mandela declared there was “no crisis” in the Eastern Cape. After a two-hour meeting with officials on 10 September 1995, Mandela declared there was “no crisis” and that in fact the problems of civil servants “were not discussed”, nor was a report to the parliamentary finance committee on the situation in the former Transkei. Provincial premier Raymond Mhlaba was “totally trustworthy”, declared Mandela - “Mahlaba had been involved in the struggle for more than 40 years”. So that was that! Problems in the Transkei were due to “untrained staff”, said another provincial report, despite evidence that there was wholesale theft of funds. (How do you train someone not to steal?)
This was the mindset then, and this is the mindset now! (Interestingly, the Eastern Cape from where the ANC’s chosen emanates, is the most decrepit, corrupt and incompetent province in the country. They even steal from their own children – from the budget to feed 1,42 million E.Cape children, the government department involved cannot account for more than R180 million of this budget!)
Even the most accommodating liberal supporter of the ANC’s South Africa has turned, and they have turned with a vengeance. Noseweek’s editor says SA’s leadership is “corrupt and delusional and irrational”. Others say the government is “out of touch” and a “bunch of mental midgets”.
President Jacob Zuma’s recent cabinet reshuffle was simply a ploy to enhance his chances of being re-elected in 2012 by removing political antagonists and replacing them with acolytes. (Citizen editorial 2.11.10) His administration has now been further bloated by extra appointments, and really incompetent persons such as Lulu Xingwana have remained as they are loyalists. Zuma is simply re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic!
The implications of this denialism are far-reaching. Erstwhile honest taxpayers are now finding ways to avoid paying tax for more wives, more overseas trips, higher salaries, larger luxury vehicles and summits at Sun City!
Our farmers are under siege, farmland is being destroyed by coal mining because top-level ANC friends have shares in coal companies, BEE has resulted in nothing more than the self-enrichment of a few, our health services will be destroyed by delusional dreams of a national health service underpinned by a shrinking tax base, threats to nationalize mining are taken seriously by investors, school and university certificates are in many cases not worth the paper they’re written on, farmers are accused of shooting labour inspectors without a shred of evidence, our water is polluted, our police force is corrupt and untrustworthy, our defence force a shadow of its former self, but the denialism is so entrenched that no advice is taken by government to alleviate the problems, and none is sought.. On the contrary, those who speak up are racists who don’t want to see blacks succeed!
If present-day South Africa is an ANC success, then their failures are too terrible to contemplate!
» » » » [TAU-SA/TLU-SA]
Among the Inept, Researchers Discover, Ignorance Is Bliss
Erica Goode, New York Times
Published: January 18, 2000
There are many incompetent people in the world. Dr. David A. Dunning is haunted by the fear he might be one of them.
Dr. Dunning, a professor of psychology at Cornell, worries about this because, according to his research, most incompetent people do not know that they are incompetent.
On the contrary. People who do things badly, Dr. Dunning has found in studies conducted with a graduate student, Justin Kruger, are usually supremely confident of their abilities -- more confident, in fact, than people who do things well.
''I began to think that there were probably lots of things that I was bad at and I didn't know it,'' Dr. Dunning said.
One reason that the ignorant also tend to be the blissfully self-assured, the researchers believe, is that the skills required for competence often are the same skills necessary to recognize competence.
The incompetent, therefore, suffer doubly, they suggested in a paper appearing in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
''Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it,'' wrote Dr. Kruger, now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, and Dr. Dunning.
This deficiency in ''self-monitoring skills,'' the researchers said, helps explain the tendency of the humor-impaired to persist in telling jokes that are not funny, of day traders to repeatedly jump into the market -- and repeatedly lose out -- and of the politically clueless to continue holding forth at dinner parties on the fine points of campaign strategy.
Some college students, Dr. Dunning said, evince a similar blindness: after doing badly on a test, they spend hours in his office, explaining why the answers he suggests for the test questions are wrong.
In a series of studies, Dr. Kruger and Dr. Dunning tested their theory of incompetence. They found that subjects who scored in the lowest quartile on tests of logic, English grammar and humor were also the most likely to ''grossly overestimate'' how well they had performed.
In all three tests, subjects' ratings of their ability were positively linked to their actual scores. But the lowest-ranked participants showed much greater distortions in their self-estimates. Asked to evaluate their performance on the test of logical reasoning, for example, subjects who scored only in the 12th percentile guessed that they had scored in the 62nd percentile, and deemed their overall skill at logical reasoning to be at the 68th percentile.
Similarly, subjects who scored at the 10th percentile on the grammar test ranked themselves at the 67th percentile in the ability to ''identify grammatically correct standard English,'' and estimated their test scores to be at the 61st percentile.
On the humor test, in which participants were asked to rate jokes according to their funniness (subjects' ratings were matched against those of an ''expert'' panel of professional comedians), low-scoring subjects were also more apt to have an inflated perception of their skill. But because humor is idiosyncratically defined, the researchers said, the results were less conclusive.
Unlike their unskilled counterparts, the most able subjects in the study, Dr. Kruger and Dr. Dunning found, were likely to underestimate their own competence. The researchers attributed this to the fact that, in the absence of information about how others were doing, highly competent subjects assumed that others were performing as well as they were -- a phenomenon psychologists term the ''false consensus effect.''
When high scoring subjects were asked to ''grade'' the grammar tests of their peers, however, they quickly revised their evaluations of their own performance. In contrast, the self-assessments of those who scored badly themselves were unaffected by the experience of grading others; some subjects even further inflated their estimates of their own abilities.
''Incompetent individuals were less able to recognize competence in others,'' the researchers concluded.
In a final experiment, Dr. Dunning and Dr. Kruger set out to discover if training would help modify the exaggerated self-perceptions of incapable subjects. In fact, a short training session in logical reasoning did improve the ability of low-scoring subjects to assess their performance realistically, they found.
The findings, the psychologists said, support Thomas Jefferson's assertion that ''he who knows best knows how little he knows.''
And the research meshes neatly with other work indicating that overconfidence is a common; studies have found, for example, that the vast majority of people rate themselves as ''above average'' on a wide array of abilities -- though such an abundance of talent would be impossible in statistical terms. And this overestimation, studies indicate, is more likely for tasks that are difficult than for those that are easy.
Such studies are not without critics. Dr. David C. Funder, a psychology professor at the University of California at Riverside, for example, said he suspected that most lay people had only a vague idea of the meaning of ''average'' in statistical terms.
''I'm not sure the average person thinks of 'average' or 'percentile' in quite that literal a sense,'' Dr. Funder said, ''so 'above average' might mean to them 'pretty good,' or 'O.K.,' or 'doing all right.' And if, in fact, people mean something subjective when they use the word, then it's really hard to evaluate whether they're right or wrong using the statistical criterion.''
But Dr. Dunning said his current research and past studies indicated that there were many reasons why people would tend to overestimate their competency, and not be aware of it.
In some cases, Dr. Dunning pointed out, an awareness of one's own inability is inevitable: ''In a golf game, when your ball is heading into the woods, you know you're incompetent,'' he said.
But in other situations, feedback is absent, or at least more ambiguous; even a humorless joke, for example, is likely to be met with polite laughter. And faced with incompetence, social norms prevent most people from blurting out ''You stink!'' -- truthful though this assessment may be.
All of which inspired in Dr. Dunning and his co-author, in presenting their research to the public, a certain degree of nervousness.
''This article may contain faulty logic, methodological errors or poor communication,'' they cautioned in their journal report. ''Let us assure our readers that to the extent this article is imperfect, it is not a sin we have committed knowingly.''
» » » » [New York Times]
Why we overestimate our competence
Social psychologists are examining people's pattern of overlooking their own weaknesses.
By Tori DeAngelis
February 2003, Vol 34, No. 2
Print version: page 60
We've all seen it: the employee who's convinced she's doing a great job and gets a mediocre performance appraisal, or the student who's sure he's aced an exam and winds up with a D.
The tendency that people have to overrate their abilities fascinates Cornell University social psychologist David Dunning, PhD. "People overestimate themselves," he says, "but more than that, they really seem to believe it. I've been trying to figure out where that certainty of belief comes from."
Dunning is doing that through a series of manipulated studies, mostly with students at Cornell. He's finding that the least competent performers inflate their abilities the most; that the reason for the overinflation seems to be ignorance, not arrogance; and that chronic self-beliefs, however inaccurate, underlie both people's over and underestimations of how well they're doing.
Meanwhile, other researchers are studying the subjective nature of self-assessment from other angles. For example, Steven Heine, PhD, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, is showing that self-inflation tends to be more of a Western than a universal phenomenon. And psychologist Larry Gruppen, PhD, of the University of Michigan Medical School, is examining inaccurate self-assessments among medical students, where the costs of self-inflation can be particularly high (see related article).
Knowing thyself isn't easy
There are many reasons why it's hard to "know ourselves" in certain domains, Dunning says. In a subjective area like intelligence, for example, people tend to perceive their competence in self-serving ways. A student talented in math, for instance, may emphasize math and analytical skills in her definition of intelligence, while a student gifted in other areas might highlight verbal ability or creativity.
Another problem is that in many areas of life, accurate feedback is rare. People don't like giving negative feedback, Dunning says, so it's likely we will fail to hear criticism that would help us improve our performance.
"It's surprising how often feedback is nonexistent or ambiguous," he asserts. "It's a pretty safe assumption that what people say to our face is more positive than what they're saying behind our backs." People also overestimate themselves out of ignorance, Dunning says. Take the ironic example of an elderly man who thinks he's an excellent driver but is a hazard on the road, or the woman who reads a book about the stock market and is ready to compete with a professional stockbroker.
Dunning is addressing some of these self-overestimation issues empirically. In a series of studies reported in the December 1999 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 77, No. 6), he and co-author Justin Kruger, PhD, then a Cornell graduate student and now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, examined the idea that ignorance is at the root of some self-inflation. Cornell students received short tests in humor, grammar and logic, then assessed how well they thought they did both individually and in relation to other Cornell students. In all three areas, students who performed the worst greatly overestimated their performance compared to those who did well.
In another article in the January issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 84, No. 1), Dunning and Cornell doctoral candidate Joyce Ehrlinger describe four studies revealing a potential source of people's errors in self-judgment: their longstanding views of their talents and abilities. Depending on which measure the team looked at, such self-views were equally or more related to performance estimates than to their performance itself, and these self-views often produced errors in their reporting on how well they had just performed.
In one of the studies, for instance, the team tacitly pulled information from Cornell students to see if they thought they had logical ability. After that, the students took a multiple-choice test described as focusing on logical reasoning, then estimated the number of items they had answered correctly. Students who initially ranked themselves high on logical ability believed they were more likely to do well than those who rated themselves low on the ability, even when their performances ended up the same. Similarly in two other studies, the researchers manipulated students' chronic view of a particular talent by asking questions priming them to raise or lower their view of it. Depending on the questions, students became more or less optimistic about how well they did on a test of the talent, even though their performance was equal.
Dunning also has studied people's self-assessments in the moral domain and unearthed what he calls a "holier-than-thou" syndrome. In a series of studies reported in the December 2000 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 79, No. 6), he and Nicholas Epley, PhD, then a Cornell graduate student and now an assistant professor at Harvard University, found that undergraduates consistently overrated the likelihood that they would act in generous or selfless ways.
One of the studies, for example, uses a version of the classic "prisoners' dilemma" experiment, in which subjects must choose between self-interest and cooperation. In Dunning's study, 84 percent of the students initially predicted they would cooperate with their partner, but only 61 percent actually did. Furthermore, students' actual performance squared with their estimates of how others would behave, thus demonstrating a propensity to see others more accurately than they see themselves, Dunning comments.
Some critics have faulted Dunning's work for methodological problems, saying that it overstates the degree to which people overestimate their abilities. For example, in a 2002 article in Personality and Individual Differences (Vol. 33, No. 4), Georgia Institute of Technology psychologist Phillip Ackerman, PhD, and colleagues assert that Dunning fails to account for "regression to the mean," a statistical phenomenon which finds that if people are on the low end of a distribution, they will naturally rank themselves higher simply because their perceptions of ability aren't correlated with actual ability. In response, Dunning contends that he and Kruger did address the regression problem in their 1999 paper and that, in subsequent work, he has corrected for regression effects and still finds his numbers hold up.
Regardless of how pervasive the phenomenon is, it is clear from Dunning's and others' work that many Americans, at least sometimes and under some conditions, have a tendency to inflate their worth. It is interesting, therefore, to see the phenomenon's mirror opposite in another culture. In research comparing North American and East Asian self-assessments, Heine of the University of British Columbia finds that East Asians tend to underestimate their abilities, with an aim toward improving the self and getting along with others.
These differences are highlighted in a meta-analysis Heine is now completing of 70 studies that examine the degree of self-enhancement or self-criticism in China, Japan and Korea versus the United States and Canada. Sixty-nine of the 70 studies reveal significant differences between the two cultures in the degree to which individuals hold these tendencies, he finds.
In another article in the October 2001 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 81, No. 4), Heine's team looks more closely at how this occurs. First, Japanese and American participants performed a task at which they either succeeded or failed. Then they were timed as they worked on another version of the task. "The results made a symmetrical X," says Heine: Americans worked longer if they succeeded at the first task, while Japanese worked longer if they failed.
There are cultural, social and individual motives behind these tendencies, Heine and colleagues observe in a paper in the October 1999 Psychological Review (Vol. 106, No. 4). "As Western society becomes more individualistic, a successful life has come to be equated with having high self-esteem," Heine says. "Inflating one's sense of self creates positive emotions and feelings of self-efficacy, but the downside is that people don't really like self-enhancers very much."
Conversely, East Asians' self-improving or self-critical stance helps them maintain their "face," or reputation, and as a result, their interpersonal network. But the cost is they don't feel as good about themselves, he says. Because people in these cultures have different motivations, they make very different choices, Heine adds. If Americans perceive they're not doing well at something, they'll look for something else to do instead. "If you're bad at volleyball, well fine, you won't play volleyball," as Heine puts it. East Asians, though, view a poor performance as an invitation to try harder.
Interestingly, children in many cultures tend to overrate their abilities, perhaps because they lack objective feedback about their performance. For example, until about third grade, German youngsters generally overrate their academic achievement and class standing. This tendency declines as feedback in the form of letter grades begins. But researchers also have shown significant cross-cultural differences in youngsters' performance estimates--American children, it appears, are particularly prone to overestimate their competence. Other cross-cultural differences appear in whether children attribute good performance to ability or to effort, and in strategies used to improve performance. Researchers have linked different teaching strategies to these variations (visit www.vcld.org/pages/newsletters/01_02_fall/attribu.htm for references).
Wanted: good feedback
One antidote to inaccurate self-assessment is high-quality feedback, Dunning says. One place such feedback would be particularly useful, for instance, is in the medical arena, where physicians are mandated to identify their own weaknesses and improve on them through education and research. The difficulty is that doctors--and for that matter, people in general--often can't see those weaknesses, he says.
Dunning is now starting a study that will look more closely at the issue of "blind spots." If indeed people avoid improvement because they simply don't see their own failings, the area is ripe for intervention, he believes.
"A little pointed feedback might be the exact motivator people need to work on their shortcomings," says Dunning. "If adolescents don't realize that they really know very little about safe sex, or physicians don't know that medical technology and information has significantly changed, they can't be expected to be motivated to improve their situation."
Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.
» » » » [APA]