“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” – Bertrand Russell
Have you ever known someone who was so very dumb, did very dumb things, acted just plain stupid, but yet THOUGHT they were so smart! Come to find out, and my experience bears this out, the dumber someone is, the smarter they think they are. Conversely, the smarter one is, the less confidence they have in their intelligence. They’ve even done some scientific studies that prove the point. and it has a name: The Dunning-Kruger Effect. Sufferers have what has been called illusory superiority, where people overestimate their positive qualities and underestimate their negative qualities relative to others. I guess the corollary is illusory inferiority.
What I would have labeled as false modesty for intelligent people, is actually a psychological fact. This has fascinated me since I first heard about Dunning and Kruger’s Cornell University study a decade ago. The theory has many applications beyond simple wisdom and ignorance. Take ethics, for example.
Ethics and Ignorance
I have recently had a class on Leadership and Ethics through Gonzaga University’s Masters of Organizational Leadership program. We talked a lot about Kant, various ethical theories, shadow and light – basically what you would expect from an ethics course. But we also talked about Moral Imagination. I am simplifying, but basically, you have do develop your moral imagination in order to truly understand the ethical decision-making process well enough to make the right decisions. It’s kind of like exercising – but for one’s ethics muscles instead of the biceps. The various ethics theorists agree that ethical orientations develop along a continuum, from very basic understanding of a thing as right or wrong, to quite advanced reasoning and understanding.
And I find it very interesting that a person who is at a lower stage of ethical development cannot understand the reasoning of someone operating at much higher stages (one above and one below is the generally accepted rule of thumb). The same holds true for various stages of cognitive development in adults. Lawrence Kohlberg came up with a theory of Adult Development, and made the same conclusions. It makes sense. You cannot relate to or understand something if you have not developed the imagination or cognitive experience that will open your mind to understand these different possibilities.
What does all this have to do with anything? Well, nothing and everything. If you want to relate to people you are trying to influence, whether it is employees, family members, or politicians, then you are wise to first understand their level of development. From there, you can craft your message to appeal to them at the level of development at which they are functioning, presumably with better results.
Maybe this is what our political leaders need to understand when trying to negotiate for peace. That, and the fact that they may not be as smart as they think they are.