The more you know

“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.

Things I believe

I was reading the excellent blog of Bob Sutton recently, and in the left hand column, he had a list of 15 things he believes (about organizational life.)  His list is astute, but it got me thinking about things I believe – in general.  Here’s a start on my list.

1.  People are intrinsically good. They mean well, want to do right.  I have certainly witnessed many behaviors to the contrary, which I guess are the exceptions that prove the rule, but I believe that most people most of the time want to act morally and ethically.

2.  Positive thinking really works.  Henry Ford said, “whether you believe you can or not, you are right.” Or something like that.  The other thing about positive thinking is that it is much better than the opposite.  When I’m around negative people I feel the weight of all their negative energy dragging me down.  It’s easy to fall victim to that mentality, so I much prefer to surround myself with positive thinkers, people who believe in themselves and others.

good shepherd3.  It pays to be nice to Mother Nature. We owe it to our children and to our parents to respect the earth.  Recycle, even when it is a lot of trouble.  Plant a tree (or a flower).  Set a spider free. Feed the birds. Don’t kill honey bees, even if you are afraid they will sting you. Use less energy.  The list could go on forever, but you get the idea.

4.  Indolent is worse than stupid.  People can’t help the brains they were born with.  Well, maybe they can read more, study harder, apply themselves to improving the use of their brains, but basically either you’re smart or you aren’t.  But indolent is another thing all together.  In my 25 years or so of management, I have run across a lot of indolence – people just not caring about the quality of their work, their output, their attention to detail, their general usefulness to their employer.  That I cannot tolerate. Ignorance is understandable, indolence is not.

5. People should be more considerate of each other – friends and strangers alike.  It feels so good when someone lets you out in traffic, or when I see someone pick up trash in the street, or when the guy behind you in line gives you the nickel so you don’t have to break a $20.  As a society we do not pay enough attention to being considerate of our fellow citizens.  Being considerate of friends and family is definitely important, but  that is sort of expected.  But strangers?  No one expects us to be nice to strangers, really,  which makes it all the more special and important.