An Epitaph for the Bush Administration: A Sobering Conclusion from Cognitive Science
Robert Burton, M.D., author and former Chief of Neurology at Mount Zion-UCSF Hospital, examines why most voters will not change their minds about their favorite candidate even if presented with sufficient facts that contradicts their present beliefs.
Drawing upon a psychology paper by David Dunning and Justin Kruger, Dr. Burton also thinks the articles conclusion should serve as a caveat for political speeches, and as the Bush Administration's epitaph.
In the current presidential election, a major percentage of voters are already committed to "their candidate"; new arguments and evidence fall on deaf ears. And yet, if we, as a country, truly want change, we must be open-minded, flexible and willing to revise our opinions when new evidence warrants it. Most important, we must be able to recognize and acknowledge when we are wrong.
Unfortunately, cognitive science offers some fairly sobering observations about our ability to judge ourselves and others.
Perhaps the single academic study most germane to the present election is the 1999 psychology paper by David Dunning and Justin Kruger, "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments." The two Cornell psychologists began with the following assumptions.
Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
To put their theories to the test, the psychologists asked a group of Cornell undergraduates to undergo a series of self-assessments, including tests of logical reasoning taken from a Law School Admissions Test preparation guide. Prior to being shown their test scores, the subjects were asked to estimate how they thought they would fare in comparison with the others taking the tests.
On average, participants placed themselves in the 66th percentile, revealing that most of us tend to overestimate our skills somewhat. But those in the bottom 25 percent consistently overestimated their ability to the greatest extent. For example, in the logical reasoning section, individuals that scored in the 12th percentile believed that their general reasoning abilities fell at the 68th percentile, and that their overall scores would be in the 62nd percentile. The authors point out that the problem was not primarily underestimating how others had done; those in the bottom quartile overestimated the number of their correct answers by nearly 50 percent. Similarly, after seeing the answers of the best performers -- those in the top quartile -- those in the bottom quartile continued to believe that they had performed well.
The article's conclusion should be posted as a caveat under every political speech of those seeking office. And it should serve as the epitaph for the Bush administration: "People who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact. That is, the same incompetence that leads them to make wrong choices also deprives them of the savvy necessary to recognize competence, be it their own or anyone else's."