The Dunning Kruger effect

1st December 2017 By: Riaan de Lange

Ever heard of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr? You would, no doubt, have used his famous words or continue to use them on numerous occasions: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

As I was contemplating what to write about this week, I came across yet another economic ‘opinion piece’. It made me wonder what the difference is between an ‘opinion piece’ and ‘propaganda’. Much of a muchness, I would assume.

If this particular ‘opinion piece’ made it into book form – heaven help us! – it would reside in the fiction section of a library. It prescribes the silver bullet that would lead to South Africa’s economic salvation. Frankly, it is yet another avalanche of words masquerading as a plan. I am getting a bit weary of these ‘plans’.

I have done it too many times before, investing the time and making every effort to consider yet another set of unconnected economic ideas that, unsurprisingly, ignore the reality of what is South Africa today. The reality is what it is, not what the person offering an opinion wants it to be.

So, what is the golden thread in all these ‘opinion pieces’? It is not as inexplicable as you might think. You might well find the answer in David Dunning and Justin Kruger’s 1999 study, ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognising One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self- Assessments’. In the study, Dunning and Kruger state that the cognitive bias that “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others”. In other words, “a cognitive bias wherein people of low ability suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their cognitive ability as greater than it is”.

Just in case you thought that the Dunning-Kruger effect was revolutionary, the philo- sopher Confucius (551 to 479 BC) had previously said that “real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance”, the playwright William Shakespeare (1564 to 1616) that “the fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”, the naturalist Charles Darwin (1809 to 1882) that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” and the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872 to 1970) that “one of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision”.

I am reminded of the intense debates that resulted, over the years, when I lectured first-year economics. Oh, how I long to again be a first-year economics student. It was a time when I best understood economics. The challenge with lecturing first-year economics is the blurred lines between the philosophies of economics and politics.

The most contentious of the debates centred on the rich and the poor – for example, why are there rich people and why are there poor people and what can be done to equally distribute economic gains? The favourite question was why certain people need to be rich.

But here is the thing – people do not need to be rich; they want to be rich. They do not want to be rich; they have an undying desire to be rich, usually at the expense of others. By any means.

Have you ever asked yourself who the rich people in South Africa are and how they accumulated their wealth? Let me just stray for a moment and remind you that there is no such thing as a self-made millionaire or billionaire. It is, quite simply, impossible to attain millions or billions on your own. Wealth is attained through a competitive advantage – just or unjust, but mostly the latter. Either you are a beneficiary through birth or you benefit from connections. Self-made, no.

During the first-year debates, I used to challenge students to identify their economic hero or heroes that had attained great wealth, particularly those who had done so in a very short space of time. I challenged the students to research these individuals’ road to riches. Once this research had been done, we would consider whether any of these ‘rags-to-riches’ stories could be recreated on a grand style – for the benefit of all South Africans. If one person is able to attain such massive wealth, would there not be merit in duplicating their ‘recipe’? Rather than burdening government with the responsibility to generate wealth for all its people, why not use the ‘get rich’ recipe for all?

Here is the disturbing thing (well, for me, at least it was): during the close-on-ten years that I lectured first-year economics, not once did a single student – after the aforementioned exercise – believe that the individual ‘get rich’ recipe can be used to create wealth for all South Africans.

So, how is it possible that the ‘recipe’ that created great wealth for an individual could not be duplicated or be used to create wealth for all South Africans? A three-word explanation, really: friends and favour. The words sound so innocent, but do not be deceived.

As I look at the recent additions to the wealthy ranks in South Africa, the obvious question is: At what cost was their wealth attained, sometimes in only a few years? And what contribution did they make towards attaining this wealth?

The ‘leaders of business’ now want to convince us that South Africa can reform itself and achieve yearly levels of economic growth of 3%. This seems to be a seriously low growth rate, and I can bet my bottom dollar that these ‘leaders of business’ would not have amassed their fabulous wealth if the economy was growing at 3%.

If you derived your wealth through friends and favour, you would exemplify the Dunning-Kruger effect by offering your own economic insights. See South Africa for what it is. See yourself for what you are. There is a lack of honesty.