The know-it-alls

José Azel.

You know the type. They are those people who think they have all the answers and have never encountered a problem they did not know how to solve. They are the know-it-alls. They are dismissive of the opinions of others, they feel superior, and are unwilling to listen to others. They think they have all the knowledge they could possibly need, and they genuinely believe that they know more about any topic than anyone else. Recognize them? Know-it-alls are abundant in my tribe.

Know-it-alls suffer from a cognitive bias psychologists call the Dunning-Kruger effect. According to social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the bias results from an internal illusion where people of low ability are unable to recognize their lack of ability. That is, people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability so that, their low competence is disguised by a show of overconfidence. In Dunning-Kruger effect studies, people who scored the lowest on tests of logical reasoning and grammar had the most inflated opinion of themselves.

Consider the now classic case of McArthur Wheeler. In 1995, McArthur Wheeler robbed two banks consecutively in broad daylight. Wheeler did not wear a mask or hide his face. Police put up his picture on local TV news which led to his immediate arrest. Wheeler was surprised he had been identified, as he told the police: “But, I wore the juice.”

During the interrogation Wheeler told the police that he had rubbed his face with lemon juice to make it invisible to security cameras. Wheeler believed that lemon juice could be used as an “invisible ink” and he assumed that the juice would make his face invisible to the cameras. He claimed that he had tested this out by putting the juice on his face and taking a selfie.

Psychologists Dunning and Kruger earned the Ig Nobel Prize for their work on the Wheeler case. The Ig award is a pun on the Nobel prize that celebrates scientific research that first makes people laugh and then makes them think.

Consider also the strange case of the University of Liberia, a publicly funded institution of higher learning founded in 1862 which enrolls approximately 18,000 students. The University of Liberia is the oldest degree-granting school in West Africa and is accredited by Liberia’s Commission on Higher Education.

In 2013 nearly 25,000 students took the university’s entrance exam, and every single one failed the exam. I am not sure what to make of this epic failing, but the Dunning-Kruger effect must be at play somewhere in Liberia’s education system.

We most often encounter know-it-alls in sociopolitical and economic discussions when know-it-alls rush to exhibit their compulsion to exclude and their authoritarian personality. Scholars, such as behavioral economist Karen Stenner who research personality traits, have identified an “authoritarian predisposition” in those who favor homogeneity and order.

This contrasts with a “libertarian” predisposition that favors diversity and difference. In Stenner’s terminology, authoritarianism is not political, and it is not the same as conservatism.

Authoritarianism appeals to know-it-alls because they have difficulty with complexity. They seek political solutions in a way that makes them feel more secure. Stenner argues that about a third of the population in any country has this authoritarian predisposition. I think of know-it-alls as having an authoritarian predisposition inimical to democracy.

In closed societies, the new arrival of democratic governance can be, as Stenner puts it, “complex and frightening” for people not used to public dissent. Moreover, the classic institutions of democracy were developed for an era with very different, and much more limited, information technologies. These democratic institutions were not designed to handle the know-it-alls of today who fancy a single authoritarian narrative.

We all have blind spots in our knowledge and opinions. But the know-it-alls, affected by the cognitive bias of the Dunning-Kruger effect, are blind to their own blindness. They have a false certainty in their judgments that prevents them from rethinking their positions when faced with conflicting evidence. As Charles Darwin reminded us, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge.” You know the type.

Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Liberty for Beginners.”

“The opinions published herein are the sole responsibility of its author”.