One of the greatest mysteries of our human existence is how two people, when presented with identical information, can come to radically different conclusions. How is it that the exact same image or words or clip can be interpreted differently by two people, each with 20/20 vision? Examples of the resulting friction have both entertained us with great literature and movies, and employ many thousands in the legal industry. Our inability to see the same thing the same way is truly perplexing.
So head-scratching is this quirk of human behavior, smart social scientists have exerted substantial energy into understanding why. They have developed elaborate hypotheses, done the studies, analyzed the data, and shared the results along with their interpretations.
If you think back to your Psych 101 days, you’ll remember your introduction to a few new terms. One is the simple four-letter word of ‘bias.’ Then you shook hands with the many variants of ‘bias.’ You have gender bias, projection bias, negativity bias, confirmation bias, self-serving bias, conformity bias, affinity bias, the Halo Effect, and even a beauty bias. There are many more members of the ‘Bias’ family. Then we learned that we all are a big steaming bowl of jambalaya of unconscious biases. Can’t escape it — part of our human DNA. The same DNA that also allows us to construct stereotypes.
Nearly every experience every day of our lives either adds to a stereotype or subtracts from one. My reading of a 96-year-old man parachuting from an airplane takes a bite out of my stereotype that all old men are drooling in some state of dementia. Call me a flaming ageist, and along with all my other stereotypes, I might be one. But I don’t think so. You see, I love old people. I love old people so much, I’m putting in my time to join them. I’m destined to do my own drooling. My grandchildren think I’ve already started.
The vocabulary meaning of ‘bias’ is ‘prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.’ By today’s sensitivities, the term contains two big words. ‘Prejudice’ and ‘unfair.’ Both words have found their way unto any number of protest signs. Not just today, but ever since felt pens were invented.
So by definition, our biases, which we all possess, play a big role in how we see and interpret something. It is our unique ‘angle’ to the world. It’s critical to shaping our world view. It is why we get two different descriptions of the same auto accident, or just because you didn’t see your player commit the foul, the referee thought he did and blew the whistle. “What are you blanking blind ref!” you scream. It is what makes some find a joke funny, and others find it offensive.
But accepting that we bring our biases to nearly every observation, it doesn’t explain why some hold so firmly to what they think they see. You might think that that life’s experiences would allow for some doubt. If not, then some book or movie with a plot suggesting ‘things are not as they appear’ would. Apparently, for some, just seeing an image of something will allow them to make conclusions with great clarity leading to great certainty. If you see it differently, then you lack intelligence, or empathy, or insight, or you live in Rubeville, which explains your unfortunate biases. Of course, so do yours.
In 1999, two Cornell University psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, squinted their eyes and collaborated on a bit of research. They found that when a group of folks given the same test, with some knowing little of the subject matter, some having some knowledge, and the rest knowing it well, that those least knowledgeable were the most certain of their knowledge level. When asked to predict the score of the test they just took, they nearly all thought they scored much better than they actually did (they scored at the 12% percentile yet predicted a 62% percentile result). Amazingly, they were arrogant in their ignorance.
This overestimation of one’s actual knowledge of a certain subject matter is called a lack of Metacognition. Because we are only able to evaluate ourselves from our own limited subjective point of view, we convince ourselves that we are more skilled, knowledgeable, and superior to others.
Dunning-Kruger found when mastery was gained in a particular subject, a sense that there is much yet to learn tended to moderate the tendency towards certainty. Only then is intellectual humility allowed in. We begin to understand that we actually don’t know everything there is to know. Those with a great deal of knowledge were the most realistic with their scoring outcomes. In summary, the Dunning-Kruger study showed the less you know, the more you think you know. The more you know, the less certain you are until you actually become an expert. Only then do you know what you know.
Does the Dunning-Kruger effect help us understand how two people can observe the same event radically differently? Perhaps. As Dunning has suggested, “The very trouble with ignorance is that it can feel just like expertise.”
The problem with ‘feeling’ like we’re an expert but not actually being one is a sense that we are utterly unprepared to argue our positions. Instead, we pull out all sorts of techniques to avoid engaging in respectful debate. We create simplistic memes such as all whites are racist and use that as why we shun you unless I’ve seen you worship at the altar of protest and end each Instagram post with a ‘BLM’ meme. That would be like listening to the devil as if he has something useful to add to our worldview.
That possibly explains how we can take a picture of an officer with a knee on a black man’s neck, allegedly killing him or contributing to his death, and claim great expertise in all things related to law enforcement and racism. One photo with a serving of some steaming bias, and we have all we need to eliminate all police and to claim them all racist. And if that’s not enough ingredients, let’s throw in a little campus theory on white privilege, white fragility, systemic racism, and some white salt and black pepper. With our new found certainty, we rummage through a drawer till we find a felt pen and some cardboard, write ‘Justice Now’ in big block letters, join the crowd downtown, and take our place in the now boiling-over bowl of others in our righteous stew. Make sure we grab a few selfies for our social media public relations project.
Of course, feeling like we have expertise doesn’t make us an actual expert. That takes reading and research, and possibly actually listening to experts debate the pros and cons of the subject. It would be wise to consider the lessons learned from history to master a subject as complex as racial equality. Anything less is like believing your cardboard sign is going to actually change the life of a young black girl whose dodging bullets in a Chicago project. What if that meant selling your half-million-dollar condo to help her every day with her homework or pay for her college education? It would require you to align your words with your actions. Anything less and you’re possibly not only naive but lazy too. Your dream dessert of a ‘new normal’ will soon mold over in your side by side refrigerator.
Are we all subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect? Yes. We must start by assuming we have much yet to learn, be willing to listen to all arguments, and commit to helping others with action. Only then can we make a difference in our world.