The Dunning-Kruger Effect on stature

With the collapse of a false sense of stature comes a disintegration of perceptions of personal dignity. The Dunning-Kruger Effect says that a person’s incompetence masks his or her ability to recognize his own (and others’) incompetence. Building off this concept, I hypothesize that many of the social tensions we are experiencing today are a result of a type Dunning-Kruger Effect wherein those who are incapable eventually become aware of their inability or unsuitability.

In 2010, Dr. David Dunning, now retired from Cornell University and one half of the Dunning-Kruger name, gave an interview to the NYT on the eponymous Effect. The genesis of Dunning’s research came when he read about a bank robber who made no attempt to conceal his face, resulting in his being apprehended in less than a day. During his interrogation, the man revealed that he had covered his face with lemon juice, having developed the notion that lemon juice would make “him invisible to the cameras.” He’d even tested the concept beforehand by taking a picture of himself after putting lemon juice on his face. He wasn’t in the picture (Dunning suggested that perhaps camera was pointed in the wrong direction) and concluded that the idea was sound. As Dunning put it, “he was too stupid to be a bank robber but he was too stupid to know he was too stupid to be a bank robber.” As the story of the robber illustrates, though, there always comes a moment of reckoning, where the reward of stupidity, unintentional or willful, is paid.

When I was a recent music grad, I obtained a position as a fellow with a small liberal arts college orchestra. Ostensibly, the school was one of the best of its type, but its weaknesses became apparent fairly quickly. During one rehearsal, what began as a discussion of the minuet form evolved into the conductor having to introduce the students to Jane Austen. The students all assured the conductor that they “had taken” Literature 101 and 102. As it turned out, only one of the students had read Jane Austen, and the girl had done so on her own time as Austen was no longer taught in the curriculum.

The conductor queried the students as to why they thought they could play music while being ignorant of its broader cultural setting. The students became surly in response, retorting that “she isn’t on the reading list,” as if such a statement was all the justification needed. The dynamic in the ensemble was already rocky as two weeks before all but two students had skipped rehearsal to attend a varsity soccer match. The conductor had chastised them for their unprofessionalism, pointing out that missing rehearsals is cause for termination in professional ensembles. As a defense, the students cited college regulations which said that all sports events took precedence over other commitments. In other words, the conductor could not discipline skippers if they missed to attend a sports event.

At the end of that year, the conductor resigned, and I followed one term later. I made the decision to leave after two students for whom I was responsible said in front of me, “at least this one [the new conductor] respects us. [The old one] always treated us like we were stupid, didn’t know things.” As someone who was present, I can testify that the conductor was a model of patience and positive leadership. The students truly didn’t possess the basic knowledge reasonable to expect from third years at a supposedly good private liberal arts college. And they had no interest in remedying their deficiencies. They saw any situation where their ignorance displayed itself as a “gotcha” setup.

Technically these students didn’t fit the Dunning-Kruger pattern as they possessed enough knowledge to know they didn’t know. There is, perhaps, a similarity to the bank robber’s lemon juice in that the students made a blanket assumption that completing college-assigned reading was sufficient to turn them into literate people. Where this notion originated is beyond me, as it is common knowledge that extracurricular reading is a vital component for success at elite institutions. Just like the robber’s, the students’ ignorance was appalling – and much less amusing.

For our non-American readers, it is a conceit of small private liberal arts colleges that they are educating/raising (this is key) the leaders of the future. There is some justification for this view since these colleges can provide a door into better institutions. It is, however, rare to find a national-level politician, industry leader, or public figure who hasn’t at least finished his or her education at one of the über-competitive, big name schools or universities.

The stars of this particular anecdote were convinced that they were destined for great things. A challenge to their knowledge base was an assault on their identities, and therefore their sense of stature. Granted, their unprofessional behavior had already cost them their dignity, but they didn’t know that. The sense that dignity might be a distinction to be earned and not granted through entitlement escaped them. In a modification of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the students had no dignity because of their ignorance and unprofessionalism but they were too stupid to know that they had forfeited their chance to be respected. 

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