Back in my rock & roll days I spent more than a few late nights in gin mills and honky-tonks, downing beers with world experts on economic policy, foreign relations, and national security issues. Well, they sounded like world experts.
I was always impressed with the certainty and assurance with which these self-ordained authorities offered solutions to every societal problem imaginable. (I also wondered how these barroom denizens found the time to do the exhaustive research upon which their confident pronouncements had to be based.)
Likewise, in the public square today I am struck by the fact that candidates (at least one, anyway) for the highest office in the land can expatiate with total certainty on solutions to decades-old issues—without any apparent education in them.
Yet in a world of VUCA (a business acronym for the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity of the modern marketplace) many industry leaders—who do have the education and experience—now profess to not have the answers, and suggest we not expect to have surefire responses to threats in this volatile and uncertain political, social, and economic climate.
In fact they're saying beware of those who make preemptive and presumptuous judgments on topics that are inherently complex and entangled. (In the economic realm, for example, we seem to assume that a trade deficit is bad, that immigrants never create jobs, and that Big Anything is evil.)
If all of this sounds familiar, you may recall my earlier post on the Dunning Kruger effect which postulates that individuals who are relatively unskilled at a task have an illusion of superiority at it—while lacking the metacognitive ability to recognize this! And individuals who are more skilled are likely to have more doubts about their ability. (Perhaps because of their recognition of the complexity of things?)
But as long as self-identified authorities have the swag to go with their proposed cures, we figure they must have or know something we don't.
Such overconfidence has worked fine for celebrity entertainers and their devotees over the years. Young fans eagerly followed Mick Jagger, Sting, Prince, etc. wherever they went—just as they do for Beyonce and Justin Bieber today. After all, uberconfidence is attractive and appealing. (And it suggests that these larger-than-life gods and goddesses must have the answer.) But in the fantasy world of pop music there's no real harm done when fans eventually wake up to the (mostly benign) illusion.
But in the world of business and finance, international relations, and governmental policy—where billions of lives can be affected by a single decision—Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity should command the respect of any societal leader. VUCA—like Shiva, the Hindu god of paradox—warns us that overconfidence can be fatal.
I should add that the Dunning Kruger effect is not new. Over a century ago British philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell observed, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”