Posts Tagged ‘Brexit’

Daniel Kahneman and the Stupidity Pandemic

December 26, 2016

In case you haven’t noticed there is a stupidity pandemic.  It’s a pandemic because it rages throughout the world.  Perhaps the most conspicuous example are the religious wars.  These wars are several centuries out of date.  Terrorism is a religious war being largely fought within the Islamic faith with some terrorists groups targeting the west.  Then there is Brexit, a phenomenon that was not predicted by professional politicians.  In general there is lack of faith in what is called the “establishment” and in bodies of knowledge such as science.

In the United States there is the phenomenon of Donald Trump.  When Trump began his campaign it was regarded as a joke and was quite funny.  It is still a joke, but one that is no longer funny.  If every vote had counted in the United States, the Trump problem would not exist.  But an archaic and stupid institution called the electoral college elected Trump, therefore nullifying the will of the majority of US citizens.

So what has Nobel Lauerate Daniel Kahneman have to do with this?  His two process theory of human cognition provides a means of understanding this pandemic.  System 1 refers to our normal mode of cognition.  It is very fast and allows for fluent conversations and skilled performance.  It is the default mode of cognition.  System 2 is called reasoning and corresponds to what we colloquially call thinking.  System 2 requires attention and mental effort.  One of the jobs of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for errors.  However, this requires mental effort and thinking.

Experiments have been run where statements are presented to the research participant.  The brain is monitored.  When a statement conflicts with a participant’s individual beliefs, a signature is reported from the brain.  The question is whether this statement will be ignored, or whether the participant engages in deeper thought to reconsider this statement.  There is a cognitive cost here and the simplest reaction is to ignore the statement and regard it as a mistaken belief.

Trump’s  victory was a victory for System 1 processing.  System 1 appeals to fears, emotions, bigotry, and so forth.  Trump is a genius at connecting with and exploiting the System 1 processes of people.  Trump himself rarely uses System 2 processing.  He does not read books, does not think he needs to attend briefings because he knows everything already.  His gut, his System 1 processing, tells him what is true.  However, Trump does not care what is true.  It is whatever he believes at the moment, and this does change from moment to moment.  This is one of the reasons he is such an effective liar.  He does not care what is true.  It is whatever is expedient for the moment.  When confronted with his lies, he denies the truth.  His promise to make America great again was predicated on the lie that the United States is not regarded throughout the world as a great country.  Enemies dislike the politics of Americans, but nevertheless respect its greatness.

Totalitarian countries have exploited the big lie, and so does Trump.  See the healthy memory blog “Sick Memory.”  Lying has become a profitable industry.  Dana Milbank had an interesting column in the 21 December 2016 Washington Post title “Hoping that he didn’t really mean it.”  Milbank pointed out that many areas of the country that went for Trump will suffer deeply from cuts in government spending that will occur if Trump acts on his promises.  The title of Milbank’s article provides the explanation of how these voters reconcile their vote with the adverse effects that will affect them personally.
It is clear that these people did not employ System 2 processing when they voted.  There is justification for believing that these people rarely engaging in System 2 processing.  Like Trump, they go with their gut feelings.  Unfortunately, there is some question if such people will ever realize that they have screwed themselves.  Trump can continue to exploit their fears and bigotry to keep them in line.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The Dunning-Kruger Effect

July 22, 2016

HM had an embarrassing experience when his friend, a physicist, asked him about the Dunning-Kruger effect and he had to express ignorance.  HM was embarrassed because this effect is in the same field in which HM’s interests lay.  After learning about the effect, the relevance of the effect to the current phenomena known as Trump became evident.

There are two parts to the Dunning-Kruger effect.  The first refers to the cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority.  The second part refers to a cognitive bias for highly skilled individuals to underestimate the relative competence of unskilled individuals and assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.

HM will address the second part first.  A fundamental difficulty HM has in teaching is to overestimate what students do and can understand.  HM is not implying that these students are stupid, although this might be the simplest explanation.  However, it is the teacher’s responsibility to teach to the level of what the student can understand.  As a result of repeated experience with students of a certain level, the teacher can and should identify the appropriate level to teach and proceed accordingly.

Dunning and Kruger were not the first to recognize this effect.  Confucius said, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”  Bertrand Russell said, “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.”  This statement reminds HM of the phrase, “Ignorance is bliss.”  Charles Darwin wrote, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”  Shakespearean “As You Like It”  wrote “The Foole doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a Foole.”

Trump followers appear to be extremely confident in Trump.  How anyone can be confident in Trump given the content of the previous Healthymemory blog posts is completely baffling to HM.  But then, HM is assuming that Trump followers have knowledge that they don’t have.

It would be interesting to have discussion groups with Trump devotees.  The objective of these discussions would not be to try to persuade them to change their opinion, but rather to discuss how the different branches of government work, the role of the Constitution and the Supreme Court.  There would also be discussion regarding the economy, foreign trade, and the subtleties and intricacies of international relations.
I think the results of these discussion group would be extremely depressing.  But they would also be informative.

Palatable, informational presentations might actually urge these followers to think and to invoke their System 2 processes.  Arguing directly regarding the potential disaster Trump could cause the county will not work because people will become defensive.  However, for those who can actually be induced to think might change their minds on their own.

There is some evidence that the Dunning Kruger Effect might be specific to western cultures.  A number of studies using East Asian participants suggest that different social forces are at play in difference cultures.  East Asians tend to underestimate their abilities and see underachievement as a chance to improve themselves and to get along with others.  If only this attitude could be fostered in our culture.

Another Western culture showing the Dunning-Kruger Effect is Great Britain’s Brexit vote.  The Prime Minister assumed that a reasoned discussion of the benefits from remaining in the EU versus the costs in leaving the EU would result in a vote to remain, but just the opposite occurred.  One problem was that a reasoned discussion did not take place.  Rather it became a rowdy political contest in which lies and misrepresentation were made.  HM needs to bring Kahneman’s two process view of cognition into this discussion.  Remember that System 1, intuition, is fast, emotional, and our default mode for processing.  System 2, called reasoning, is slow and effortful.  It became clear that remain arguments had the flavor of System 2 processing.  They were well-reasoned and thought out and supported by data.  Unfortunately, exit arguments smack primarily of System 1 processes that were largely emotional.   They wanted to be British and they wanted to prevent immigration.

For more on the Dunning-Kruger effect and for more specific references see the Wikipedia.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.