Saturday, October 25, 2008


I was reading the various Boris Johnson blogs earlier this week when something struck me. It was the combination of the Boriswatch story about the basis of the whole obsession with Routemaster buses falling apart, and the news that Boris Johnson's crazyarse idea about building an airport in the Thames Estuary was being examined "in-house" at the GLA, an organisation with no airport expertise at all. I thought, hell, this really is the Dunning-Kruger Effect at its best. Come to think of it, you could call this lot the Dunning-Kruger administration.

The DKE is a major result in cognitive psychology, discovered in 1999 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger at Cornell. They tested groups of students on various skills, and asked them to evaluate their performance relative to the rest of the class. They then marked the test papers, and informed the students of their scores. Here's the clever bit: they then asked them to self-evaluate again. What they found was this: high self-evaluation was correlated with low performance. The worse students, across all the skills tested, consistently thought they were the best; in fact, the worst 12 per cent marked themselves, on average, in the top 38 per cent.

That wasn't all. The gap between ego and reality shrank with greater competence; but it did so faster than you might expect, so the two lines crossed early. The most competent students actually tended to underrate their own abilities. And here's the really interesting bit. The genuinely sick bit; every psych experiment needs one of those. When the incompetent students were shown their grades, their self-evaluation got worse. The good news is that intensive teaching and practice improved both their performance and their self-evaluation.

Mayor of London? Sure I can do that. Piece of piss. Anyway, then there was some kind of kerfuffle in the Corfu yacht club involving my favourite shadow chancellor. Dunning-Kruger? You bet. And I'm suddenly faced with the thought that perhaps Boris Johnson *is* the clever one. Politically speaking, I mean. Obviously he's DKE up to here when it comes to airports, buses etc, but think about it; suddenly, the Tories are in a major fix. The economy is going down the toilet, but at the same time, the Tories' credibility on the issue is doing the same...and they're the opposition.

Perhaps Boris recognised that the Mayoral election was going to be a great opportunity, and there wasn't going to be many of those going for a while? Despite a lot of red-flashing warning signs the economy hadn't really suffered yet, the great consumer boom was still going strong, the Tories' success in the game of personality politics was still intact. All he needed was a good framing campaign; and the Bendy Jihad was it. In the same way as the subjects in the Dunning-Kruger experiment simply adjusted their view of reality to match their internal reality, this sort of media campaign surrounds us with false consensus, relying on us to adjust our internal references to match it. The Bendy Jihad was quite clearly designed to exploit two of the standard cognitive biases - DKE, and the availability cascade. This worried me quite a lot; it suggested that the Policy Exchange/Tory Decent crew could win anything.

But now? I don't think so. The times are not for bendy jihads and bicycling twerps. And George Osborne's horribly botched attempt at a political stabbing? So Dunning-Kruger.

1 comment:

Fellow Traveller said...

Yeats said it first:

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

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