On Top of Mount Stupid

Entire organizations also suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect. After the first steps of transformation and the first insights, they are stuck at the peak of "Mount Stupid", where they enjoy all kinds of cargo cult grossly overestimating what they have already achieved.

Orga­ni­za­tions are made up of peo­ple and peo­ple tend to have many cog­ni­tive bias­es. One of these is the Dun­ning-Kruger effect (Wikipedia), first described by the two social psy­chol­o­gists David Dun­ning and Justin Kruger in an arti­cle pub­lished in 1999. In essence, the Dun­ning-Kruger Effect states that less com­pe­tent peo­ple tend to clear­ly over­es­ti­mate them­selves and con­se­quent­ly are not able to cor­rect­ly assess the supe­ri­or skills of tru­ly com­pe­tent people.

But when you’re incom­pe­tent, the skills you need to pro­duce a right answer are exact­ly the skills you need to rec­og­nize what a right answer is.  In log­i­cal rea­son­ing, in par­ent­ing, in man­age­ment, prob­lem solv­ing, the skills you use to pro­duce the right answer are exact­ly the same skills you use to eval­u­ate the answer.

David Dun­ning

The Dun­ning-Kruger effect leads to all sorts of heat­ed dis­cus­sions in social media, because in the age of Google every­one can acquire a lit­tle basic knowl­edge and thus quick­ly con­sid­er them­selves very com­pe­tent. How­ev­er, a deep and last­ing under­stand­ing of a top­ic and real exper­tise can only be achieved when you leave the peak of “Mount Stu­pid” behind.

The first step towards this is the real­iza­tion of not-know­ing, as attrib­uted to Socrates: “I know that I do not know!” Quite delib­er­ate­ly, “not” instead of “noth­ing” is writ­ten here, which fits bet­ter the orig­i­nal mean­ing. For Socrates, the recog­ni­tion of the lim­its of his own knowl­edge means a piece of wis­dom: “Although I do not sup­pose that either of us knows any­thing real­ly beau­ti­ful and good, I am bet­ter off than he is — for he knows noth­ing, and thinks that he knows. I nei­ther know nor think that I know.” (Pla­to: Apol­o­gy of Socrates). Wis­dom does not begin with the first bits of under­stand­ing, but only with the descent from the peak of Mount Stu­pid into the val­ley of despair.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

Of course, it is one thing if indi­vid­ual peo­ple do not over­come this peak in their devel­op­ment and then per­haps stand out through equal­ly con­fi­dent and incom­pe­tent con­tri­bu­tions to the dis­cus­sion. The oth­er, and far more trag­ic, is when entire orga­ni­za­tions pause at this peak of Mount Stu­pid in their efforts at trans­for­ma­tion and enjoy their beau­ti­ful­ly cel­e­brat­ed car­go cult.

In the South Seas there is a car­go cult of peo­ple. Dur­ing the war they saw air­planes land with lots of good mate­ri­als, and they want the same thing to hap­pen now. So they’ve arranged to imi­tate things like run­ways, to put fires along the sides of the run­ways, to make a wood­en hut for a man to sit in, with two wood­en pieces on his head like head­phones and bars of bam­boo stick­ing out like anten­nas — he’s the con­troller — and they wait for the air­planes to land. They’re doing every­thing right. The form is per­fect. It looks exact­ly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No air­planes land. So I call these things car­go cult sci­ence, because they fol­low all the appar­ent pre­cepts and forms of sci­en­tif­ic inves­ti­ga­tion, but they’re miss­ing some­thing essen­tial, because the planes don’t land.

Richard Feyn­man, 1974

In order for orga­ni­za­tions not to become too com­fort­able on this peak, it takes peo­ple who are will­ing and able to crit­i­cal­ly chal­lenge the sta­tus quo again and again. This is exact­ly what court jesters and cor­po­rate rebels do, open­ing the way to a real trans­for­ma­tion beyond the com­fort­able peak of car­go cult. Change needs dis­tur­bance — espe­cial­ly when many believe they have reached their goal after the first steps and cel­e­brate for their foos­ball tables, sneak­ers and col­or­ful sticky notes.

The fun­da­men­tal cause of the trou­ble is that in the mod­ern world the stu­pid are cock­sure while the intel­li­gent are full of doubt.

Bertrand Rus­sell


Du willst keinen Artikel mehr ver­passen? Mit meinem Newslet­ter bekommst du jeden neuen Artikel druck­frisch in deinen Eingangskorb. 

Share This Post

Leave a Reply