Richard North, 29/08/2016  

Over the weeks as we singularly fail communicate vital ideas to diverse groups of people, we have been constantly exploring ways of trying to do the job better. We never stop doing this.

However, there is a great deal to be said for the axiom, "you can take a horse to water but you cannot make it think". Many of our failures are not of our making. You cannot help people who don't want help. Especially, we cannot (and will not) help those whose only purpose in seeking information is to confirm their own preconceptions. We are not in the business of telling people only what they wnt to hear.

But what has been particularly intriguing is the influence of what is termed the Dunning-Kruger effect which, summed up, describes a cognitive bias which prevents incompetent people recognising their own incompetence. Basically, "If you're incompetent, you can’t know you're incompetent.… The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognise what a right answer is".

This, though, is not the focus of this post. Within the paper (linked above) is a section on "incompetence and the failure of feedback". The essence of the thinking is that while incompetent individuals are unable to spot their poor performances themselves, negative feedback can (and should) provide a corrective.

The problem, though, is that while feedback is an essential corrective, people seldom receive negative feedback about their skills and abilities from others in everyday life. Even young children are familiar with the notion that: "if you do not have something nice to say, don't say anything at all".

Secondly, some tasks and settings preclude people from receiving self-correcting information that would reveal the suboptimal nature of their decisions.

Third, even if people receive negative feedback, they still must come to an accurate understanding of why that failure has occurred. The truly incompetent people are unable to evaluate the feedback they are getting, and put it to good use.

But what is of special interest here is the second category, where some tasks and settings preclude people from receiving self-correcting information. This, effectively describes the "bubble" effect, where people exclude feedback because it comes from outside the bubble, while their peers (in the first category) fail to provide any critical feedback.

Another self-excluding filter is "prestige", where people with an excessive regard for their own worth or social position, will reject feedback if it comes from what they regard as an inferior source.

The combined effect of these omissions and exclusions is to put clever (or competent) people on a par on the incompetent. Although they are capable of processing feedback, they put up barriers to prevent it reaching them. Through this, we see why intelligent people so often behave in stupid ways.

And that, I think, is one important reason why the Brexit debate is going adrift. The bubble-dwellers and the self-important are blocking out the feedback they need and are depriving themselves of correctives which would straighten out some of the stupidity we are seeing.

The tragedy is that people inside the bubble most often can't see the walls, while those with an over-inflated sense of self-worth are often beyond reach. They cannot learn from their errors because, in their own estimation, they never make any.

For those people, memento mori has no meaning. Mostly, they are unreachable. We cannot communicate with them. We have to learn how to by-pass the blockage.

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