When McArthur Wheeler learned that lemon juice was used as invisible ink, he rubbed it on his face and confidently proceeded to rob two banks. When the police found him, he was shocked. His disbelief was equal to theirs. He had even taken a picture to check he was invisible.
The case inspired experiments by professors David Dunning, and Justin Kruger. They found that the least proficient students dramatically overestimated their own ability. The skills they lacked were the same skills required to recognize their incompetence. Dunning found that the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.
Could the Dunning-Kruger Effect explain some of Trump’s actions? We’ll get to that, but another cognitive bias certainly shapes his ideas: Salience bias leads the media to focus on the most shocking and negative news, including stories that represent the worst .1% of immigrants. In fact, immigrants reduce the crime rate.
Over the past 30-years, the incarceration rates for Americans born in the U.S., have been 2 – 5 times higher than for immigrants. The cost of our distorted view may include a $20 billion border wall. And can you spot the salience bias in Trump’s budget priorities?
Bottom of the list is the Environmental Protection Agency.
Air pollution alone causes 200,000 early deaths in America each year, but this isn’t news. Trump’s top priority is defense with a major budget hike. The U.S. already spends more on defense than the next seven nations combined. It owns 10 of the world’s 18 active aircraft carriers, and on average, the U.S. ships are around twice as big as the rest. But war is always in the headlines, and Trump proposes to increase spending by almost the equivalent of the entire Russian defense budget.
When the media is on the attack, an incendiary statement is a powerful diversion, and repetition has a strange effect. In 1968, two groups of people were shown nonsense, Chinese-style characters, some more frequently than others. Eleven out of twelve times, the characters that were shown more often were thought to have more positive meanings.
The effect may be due to our brain’s preference for things that are easy to process, much in the same way that we prefer sharp images and clear sound. So when Trump repeatedly says he’ll bring back manufacturing jobs, people start to believe him.
Unfortunately, 86% of those jobs were in fact lost to automation, but how do we explain Trump’s claim that climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese? 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming, but Trump appointed someone who denies this to head the Environment Protection Agency.
It’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect in full force. It effects everyone from bank robbers to presidents. With any given subject, complete ignorance breeds confidence.
So how do we help people see the truth about immigrants and the environment? Psychologists believe our opinions are like protective castle walls, and simply pointing to facts can be futile. Experiments have even shown that people will defend decisions that they never actually made.
In one case, people were asked to choose the most attractive faces from several sets of pictures. The pictures were then secretly swapped, and the people were asked to explain their choices. 75% didn’t notice the switch and gave reasons for their selections. But don’t give up hope just yet.
Experiments have identified something that’s more convincing than facts alone. In 2008, most Republicans were against bringing troops home from Iraq. A group of them were shown statistics about a dramatic fall in violence, and asked if it might be a reason to bring troops home. They were not convinced.
A second group was asked to remember a positive memory – a time when they felt good about themselves – before receiving the same statistics. They were much more open to changing their minds.
FBI hostage negotiator, Chris Voss, notes that a simple smile triggers an automatic response that makes a real difference. It’s not a tactic Trump is known for. And with the media thriving on his incendiary style, the descent into doom mongering seems unstoppable, but it isn’t because while we see constant gloom, the real world is getting better and better.
Over the past 30-years, the number of people living in absolute poverty has declined from 53%, to 17%. And in 25-years, infant mortality rates have dropped by 50%. Violent crime has dropped dramatically in the U.S. and many other countries, and around the world people are receiving far more years of education than ever.
When Trump raises fears of immigrant terrorists, keep in mind that since 9/11, no one has died in a terrorist attack by immigrants from the countries he wants to ban. Meanwhile, the Environment Protection Agency has prevented hundreds of thousands of early deaths from air pollution alone.
The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.
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