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A Coupla Scientists Say People Aren’t Smart Enough for Democracy to Flourish

April 2, 2012

Given the headline, I had to make sure this wasn’t an April Fools article:

The democratic process relies on the assumption that citizens (the majority of them, at least) can recognize the best political candidate, or best policy idea, when they see it. But a growing body of research has revealed an unfortunate aspect of the human psyche that would seem to disprove this notion, and imply instead that democratic elections produce mediocre leadership and policies.

The research, led by David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, shows that incompetent people are inherently unable to judge the competence of other people, or the quality of those people’s ideas. For example, if people lack expertise on tax reform, it is very difficult for them to identify the candidates who are actual experts. They simply lack the mental tools needed to make meaningful judgments.

As a result, no amount of information or facts about political candidates can override the inherent inability of many voters to accurately evaluate them. On top of that, “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,” Dunning told Life’s Little Mysteries.

He and colleague Justin Kruger, formerly of Cornell and now of New York University, have demonstrated again and again that people are self-delusional when it comes to their own intellectual skills. Whether the researchers are testing people’s ability to rate the funniness of jokes, the correctness of grammar, or even their own performance in a game of chess, the duo has found that people always assess their own performance as “above average” — even people who, when tested, actually perform at the very bottom of the pile.

It turns out Dunning is legit. Here’s a PDF of his paper, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Leads to Inflated Self-Assessments.”

  1. twistedone151 permalink
    April 10, 2012 9:52 am

    I’m surprised that this was new to you. I thought that the Dunning-Kruger effect and illusory superiority were well-known phenomena; after all, Dunning and Kruger first put forward the concept back in 1999.

  2. Michael Wiebe permalink
    April 3, 2012 12:38 am

    I’m inclined to go with Wittman on this sort of issue: ignorance (or incompetence) alone is not a big problem. Even if voters couldn’t competently recognize the best candidates or policies, why couldn’t they follow other smart people or (if they aren’t competent enough to do that) just remain agnostic? Rational voters would not do stupid things. (But since voters do seem stupid, this is an argument against the rationality assumption.)

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