Saturday, March 10, 2012


We humans, individually, are lousy judges of ourselves, and we usually err on the side of self-flattery. Commentators on the human condition have noted as much for millennia, and researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger (Cornell and NYU) have reconfirmed this experimentally. They find that people typically and routinely overestimate their relative performances on cognitive tests, whether the subject matter is grammar, spatial skills, deductive logic, or anything else; by a large majority, test-takers – even when told their absolute scores – always believe their scores are above average in the group. Dunning and Kruger explain, “Because people choose what they think is the most reasonable and optimal option, the failure to recognize that one has performed poorly will instead lead one to assume that one has performed well. As a result, the incompetent will tend to grossly overestimate their skills and abilities.” (Kruger/Dunning, Unskilled and Unaware of It.) The best performers are always the most realistic about their relative scores, but this is a statistical phenomenon; someone in the top quartile, for example, can’t possibly rate himself or herself in any higher quartile, so he or she can only be accurate or misjudge on the low side, and few people do the latter.

Such self-delusion might be dismissed as an endearing human foible were it not for related misjudgments. People are just as bad at judging the performances of others in a group as they are at judging their own performances. Their own incompetency makes it difficult for them to recognize competency or the lack of it in others. Unsurprisingly, the worst performers are also the worst judges.

Some see a serious problem for democracy in results such as these. Dunning, quoted in Life’s Little Mysteries, remarks, "Very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is." Lacking the skills to judge, say, rival reform plans for financial industry regulation, average folks also lack the skills to judge rival planners; worse, they remain unaware of their own limitations in this regard. German sociologist Mato Nagel, inspired by Kruger/Dunning, modeled elections using a bell curve of voter leadership skills and the assumption that voters cannot recognize competency greater than their own. In his computer-simulations, mediocre candidates always win elections – results that arguably mirror reality pretty well. While the best possible candidates don’t win in his model, on the plus side at least the worst possible candidates don’t win either.

Suspicion of democracy is nothing new in intellectual circles. Witness Aristotle, who tells us that there are three “true” or good forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and a constitutional republic. He then says there are three “perversions” of these three: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. The true forms, he says, are perverted into their evil twins whenever those in power pursue primarily their own interests instead of the common interests. The U.S. Founders were avid classicists all (as well as an elite potentially at risk from the majority), and they took Aristotle very much to heart. They thereby deliberately tried to craft a constitutional republic that shackled the power of the majority by limiting government without handing power to an aristocracy or to a monarch. They regarded “democracy” as something to be feared:

Thomas Jefferson: “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49%.”
Alexander Hamilton: “Real liberty is never found in despotism or in the extremes of democracy.”
John Adams: “There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
Benjamin Franklin: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”

The word “democracy” didn’t really lose its negative Aristotelian connotation on these shores until at least the era of Andrew Jackson.

Nowadays, few people pay much attention to Aristotle (or to Jefferson for that matter). “Democracy” and “good” are virtual synonyms in common political discourse and no serious national politician (at least in the Western democracies) would argue against either publicly. Yet, there is a lingering doubt among various elites that the majority has the wisdom to govern, or even the wisdom to know when it doesn’t have the wisdom.

This doubt surely is justified. Kruger/Dunning merely give numerical values to what already was obvious. But what is the alternative? Somebody has to have last say. (Constitutional restrictions on the power of government are fine and I’m all in favor of them, but the judges who interpret those restrictions – often out of any useful existence – are still chosen directly or indirectly by the voters.) Should “somebody” be the few (which few?) or the many? Churchill’s hoary old comment still rings true: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." So, is a choice among mediocrities really the best we can do? Yeah, sadly enough, it looks like it.

What about the future? Well, if reports of the ongoing “dumbing down” of society have any truth, Mato Nagel’s results indicate our leaders will dumb down right along with it. Now there is an interesting prospect.



  1. Love "Idiocracy", a movie that surprisingly few people have seen, and I've even met a few that didn't follow the theme at all! They just felt it was a really stupid movie filled with stupid people.

    It really hurt to bite my tongue. And then I shivered because these same people might actually watch "Ass: The Movie" and laugh the entire time.

    And now I'm sounding like a the elitist snob. But I don't see how you could miss the satire in "Idiocracy" without being a bit of a dullard yourself.

  2. Idiocracy seems to have borrowed heavily from The Marching Morons, a Cyril M. Kornbluth sf story from 1951. The major difference is interesting though. In Kornbluth's tale there is still a tiny intelligent elite though it is outnumbered more with each passing year due to reproductive profligacy among the dimwits. Instead of ruling the world for their own benefit, however, the members of the elite are basically enslaved as they struggle day in and day out to keep the world from falling apart. They desperately try to arrange economic activity (like airline or train traffic) so that absolute dummies can run day-to-day operations -- they are not entirely successful because there always is a fool bigger than the proof, so horrendous accidents happen every day. The man from the past is a middlebrow con man, and he helps the elite (who no longer think this way) con the dummies into reducing their population.