Neal Boortz: Knowing little, but certain of much

I learned of a wonderful scientific study this week, and I can’t wait to share it with you. You’re going to want to write this down or maybe just save this column. Within no time at all it will come in handy when a co-worker spouts off some bit of what he assumes to be wisdom, which sounds like utter nonsense.

Just look around — tilt your head knowingly — and say, “Dunning-Kruger effect.”

What effect? Dunning-Kruger, named after the two psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who essentially proved what most of us already knew.

Example: Have you ever marveled at how young people, freshly arrived at their college campus and free from full-time parental oversight for just a matter of weeks, suddenly acquire the knowledge necessary to solve virtually all of the world’s social and economic problems?

The answer is the Dunning-Kruger effect: the theory that the less you know the more you think you know. There! Now it hits home, doesn’t it! You know that guy!

Dunning and Kruger conducted their studies on undergraduates at Cornell University. They looked at these students’ self-assessments in three areas: logical reasoning, grammatical English usage and humor. After these students made their own self-assessment they were tested.

The students who rated themselves the highest in these skill areas scored the lowest on the practical tests. But what about those students who scored well on the tests? What about their pre-test self-assessments? Interestingly enough, they had underestimated their skills in these areas.

Direct from the Dunning-Kruger study as published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology — for a given skill, incompetent people will:

1) Tend to overestimate their own level of skill. 2) Fail to recognize genuine skill in others. 3) Fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy. 4) Recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they can be trained to substantially improve.

Now you understand why our know-it-all young college students with solutions to all of the world’s problems come to a gradual understanding — with the passage of semesters and a little work experience thrown in — that they really don’t know all that much after all. It’s a real pity we made the mistake of giving them the privilege of voting before that wisdom kicked in.

Now I am going to use my 40-plus years of talk radio and discussions with possibly a quarter-million callers to lay claim to my own degree in social psychology. Lord knows I’ve endured my share of Dunning-Kruger sufferers over the years.

Dunning-Kruger, you see, seems to be unique to the United States! Studies conducted in Asia, for instance, show that Asian students are able to make a more realistic assessment of their own abilities.

Now why would that be?

One of my co-workers announced a few weeks ago that she would not be coming to work one particular Friday. Her son was getting an award at his wonderful Atlanta government school. Her son encouraged her to skip the ceremony and go to work. “Gosh, Mom! Everybody gets an award! It’s nothing special!”

So there you go, the “self-esteem” thing. Government schools handing out unearned awards, inflating grades, eliminating the dreaded “F” and not using red ink in grading papers because that would be negative. We even had teachers in a government school near Orlando showing up with special T-shirts after the school received an “F” in grading on state standards. The T-shirts? “F” is for “Fantastic!”

When you tell failing students in failing government schools that they’re doing just fine, thank you very much, they become wonderful little Dunning-Kruger trainees. Then life comes along and knocks them back a peg or two.

Listen to Neal Boortz live from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on AM 750 and now 95.5FM News/Talk WSB.

His column appears every Saturday. For more Boortz, go to

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