We humans tend to think we’re pretty god damn special. We can walk, we can talk, we can explode ourselves into space. The rest of the animal kingdom is WEAK compared to us. We’re smart, we tell ourselves. And as far as we can tell, yeah—the rest of the animal kingdom is pretty dim. So what makes us so great? What is it that sets us apart? Ready for the answer? Well I’m not yet ready to tell you yet.
Philosophers and now psychologists have been arguing about this for centuries, asking silly unimportant questions like, “When will an infant know its mother?” or “Do chimpanzees know they exist?” or “Can a dolphin recognize itself in a mirror?” in order to try and find truth. Now these may be interesting questions whose answers could provide insight into human cognition, but the most important fact is that we humans have something other animals don’t. What is it? Alright, you’ve earned it: it’s the awareness that other individuals have consciousness. We know that others act on their own individual motivations that we aren’t necessarily aware of. And not only that! We’re aware of our own minds! We take these incredibly unique abilities for granted. We don’t think twice about it.
They can, however, get us into trouble.
Each year the scientific humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research presents a parody of the Nobel Prize ceremony by giving out their version, the Ig Nobel Prizes, to ten strange or silly achievements in scientific research. Previous winners include Dominique M.R. Georget, R. Parker, and Andrew C. Smith of Norwich, England, for their serious study of soggy breakfast cereal, and Ellen Kleist of Nuuk, Greenland and Harald Moi of Oslo, Norway, for their important research on the “Transmission of Gonorrhea Through an Inflatable Doll.”
A few years ago two Cornell University scientists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, put forth a study that won them the highly sought-after prize. But I think the research was far from ignoble—in fact it was quite interesting and so deserving of love that I’m here to give it some (but not the gonorrhea from inflatable doll kind, I’ll have you know). The two discovered the scientific basis for a cognitive bias and coined their appropriately self-serving discovery the Dunning-Kruger effect.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is the tendency for unskilled individuals to suffer from illusory superiority, viewing their skills as much higher than average when they are in fact poor performers. The Dunning-Kruger effect also suggests that truly skillful and competent individuals may underrate their ability. The illusory superiority displayed by the unskilled has been attributed to a lack of metacognitive insight that leads to an inability to recognize their mistakes.
We’ve all met someone who believes they are smarter, funnier, more talented, etc. than they really are. We’ve all got a friend who wants to be a comedian but has a terrible sense of humor. A friend who thinks they can sing but whose voice sounds like a sick sea lion. A friend who fancies himself a good writer but has way, way too many commas in his copy.
Well, crap. How then can we look objectively at our own skill sets? How can I be sure that I actually am good at magic, writing, or cuddling? Perhaps, we are then forced to wonder, is our confidence is just a symptom of illusory superiority? Not only that, but another cognitive bias gets in the way—our Confirmation Bias, which makes it easier to remember things that confirm our beliefs and ignore conflicting information. And what about the Backfire Effect, our tendency to react to negative evidence by strengthening our beliefs? And we can’t forget the Bias Blind-Spot effect, where individuals think they are less biased than their peers. Want a kick to the head? There are over 200 documented decision-making, belief, behavioral, social, and memory biases.
And it’s been shown that awareness of biases does little to counteract them, often making things worse because we fall foolishly into thinking that we can.
So what is a human to do?
This is all very worrying. Although we have both a) the metacognitive ability to be aware of our thoughts and b) the awareness that others have minds, it turns out we’re severely shortsighted in our perspective of reality. We view life through the warped lens of the present, distorting our memories of the past and limiting our ability to imagine our futures. This leads to an extremely disconcerting notion—how can we really be sure of anything? We are so incredibly biased in so many ways that it may be worth considering the option of submitting to the fact that we just can’t objectively view ourselves. Strangely, ironically, we can’t truly know ourselves.
But it’s for the best.
It is fairly universally accepted that the human struggle includes the avoidance of pain and the search for pleasure. We base our day-to-day actions around pursuing fulfillment indirectly by chasing those things we believe will make us happy. Whether we’ve convinced ourselves that money, power, prestige, fame, or material goods will do it, we run. We hoof. We grind. And if we saw ourselves as we actually were, we’d probably throw ourselves off a bridge. We probably can’t handle the truth. And because our brains are smarter than we are, we stay oblivious to it.
Just as a relationship won’t survive without an optimal level of disillusionment, our overconfident and inflated sense of our own importance and genius is the only thing that allows us to succeed.
We’re all racist and self-serving megalomaniacs, even if our brains won’t let us believe it.
Or maybe it’s just me.