Sunday, August 14, 2016


A grocery checker in a nearby small town is very bossy.  She directs the other checkers, makes exceptions to store rules on the simple grounds that she knows better, and instructs even the customers that they are not doing things right.  I’ve never heard the managers correct her.  She is fat, rosy, very blonde, and totally confident that she is keeping order in a world that needs constant governing.  According to her, potent authority comes from being a small town girl (uncorrupted) and a mom (proof of value).  

I suspect it also comes from our small town education systems, which award good grades to those who obey little check lists of propriety rather than independent thought, or even admission that there are many ways to seek knowledge.  No longer do schools value democratic process or tolerate variability.  The point of college is only to get certification, like a technical vocation, and return to their hometown school to teach as their mother and grandmother did before them.  In these schools superintendents turn over every couple of years, because they bring unwelcome change.

I didn’t know there was a name for this syndrome until just now when I ran across an explanation of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is a kind of spinoff or subsidiary of the kind of neurological research Joe LeDoux does on the amygdala:  how we react to threats.  We freeze in place, demonize outsiders, avoid new ideas — but the twist that D-K introduce is research that shows that we don’t KNOW we’re doing that.  

This is the article I read, which is pretty aggressive because the publication tends to the sensational.

As psychologist David Dunning puts it in an op-ed for Politico, “The knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at the task. . . . Essentially, they’re not smart enough to realize they’re dumb.

"And if one is under the illusion that they have sufficient or even superior knowledge, then they have no reason to defer to anyone else’s judgment.”

I recognize this.  When I try to tell people what I know to be true but unfamiliar, they don’t just deny it — they deny that there is anything more to know than what they already know.  As far as they're concerned, I'm lying.  The most emotional example is trying to tell anyone in the village about the outside world.  They freak.  Their eyes flutter.

This is particularly true of writing.  The grand realm of thought and story accumulated over many centuries mean nothing to them.  They don’t think it is POSSIBLE for there to be other kinds of word and thought than what they know, nor can there be any thought without words.  (Sticking to their vocabulary, of course.)  Writing is conformity, endorsed by popularity.  

I keep thinking of the Peter Principle, which proposed that people rise to their level of marginal incompetence, which traps them there.  One of the ceilings on progress in this country is imposed by "Peters" in the management class, everywhere from corporations to grocery stores and esp. in governments.

The Dunning-Kruger phenomena was included in this article linked above explaining how anyone with brains and education can — incredibly! — defend Trump’s clown act.  It was illustrated in Valier by a man who constantly afflicted the town council with cockamamie theories about our water tower, our budgets, our streets and law enforcement.  Then he ran for mayor and WON, because he had gone from one household to another peddling gossip as truth.  No one questioned his competence to run a town.  Until the first town meeting when he couldn’t lead the Pledge of Allegiance, wanted the clerk to chair the meeting because he didn’t know Robert’s Rules of Order, and lost his temper the first time he was contradicted.  Luckily, this wave of emotion caused him to resign.  He seems to have no awareness that any of this is embarrassing and speaks Trumpishly of when he was the Mayor, as though it really happened.  The Wiki entry on Dunning-Kruger is worth reading.

There are a few corollaries to the Dunning-Kruger effect.  Terror Management Theory is relevant.  The idea is that people who are vulnerable to this effect have an actual brain difference:  they have larger and more reactive amygdalas, which means they are more easily scared and worried.  An fMRI can predict how conservative a person is by how much they react to threats.  I watched this at a meeting not long ago when the sheriff deflected questions about drug activity in Valier by introducing dramatic stories about drug activity on the adjacent reservation.  

Terror Management Theory proposes that:  “The inevitability of one’s death creates existential terror and anxiety that is always residing below the surface. In order to manage this terror, humans adopt cultural worldviews — like religions, political ideologies, and national identities — that act as a buffer by instilling life with meaning and value.

“Terror Management Theory predicts that when people are reminded of their own mortality, which happens with fear mongering, they will more strongly defend those who share their worldviews and national or ethnic identity, and act out more aggressively towards those who do not.”

Don’t think that this body of thought lets smart, educated, cosmopolitan people off the hook.  What the studies show is that these folks cannot understand that people in the grip of D-K really don’t have the ability to think, are constitutionally unable to realize that they aren’t seeing what more worldly folks take for granted.  The stuck thinkers simply seem willfully stupid.  It’s easy to view them with contempt, to not value them or their ideas — which they feel, of course, and resent.  What the stubborn know comes from television that has conditioned them to seek shock, sex, and superhuman powers — not realism.  

When they must represent their small community in the context of a much larger platform, they are paralyzed and leaders are happy to ignore them as bumpkins.  Those who program computer shows try to get the systems to operate as they did when watching television: passive, self-reinforcing, repetitious, habituated to violence and a narrow understanding of sex — all represented as righteousness and “giving you what you want.”

On the national level it is not easy to think of a remedy.  Both the ignorant and the informed are terrified by the possibilities.  What can reassure us?  I think it needs to be on the scale of a “religious” renewal that turns us away from trying to use wealth as safety, which it never is.  I think that our religious institutions themselves are too deeply invested in wealth and scare tactics to be of any use.  

Rather I look to science-based thought like Bioneers or justice-based movements coming out of race and gender indignation.  The ideas must be persuasive, visionary, and cross-culture — rich in image, full of narrative.  Happily, the research shows that when someone like the bossy grocery checker is somehow convinced that there is more to life than properly packing a brown paper bag, the scales may fall from their eyes.  They may understand that realizing the cosmos is unknowable for everyone and that everyone eventually dies, the closer they come to wisdom.

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