Some prominent psychologists in the past have used the “Dunning-Kruger effect” to explain President Donald Trump’s support.
The effect is a type of cognitive bias, where people with little expertise or ability assume they have superior expertise or ability. The fact that they don’t have enough knowledge means they overestimate their abilities. This simple, but illogical concept has been proven dozens of time in psychology studies that have been well controlled and in many contexts. The effect was not studied in the most important and obvious realm of political knowledge.
The University of Maryland Baltimore County’s political scientist Ian Anson published a new study in Political Psychology. It found that the Dunning–Kruger effect is not only applicable to politics but also seems to be magnified when partisan identities become more prominent. In other words, people who are low in political knowledge tend to underestimate their abilities when more emphasis is placed upon political affiliation.
PsyPost spoke with Anson that he was more interested in the effect as other academics began to discuss its possible role in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections on social media. “I follow a number of political scientists who marveled at the social media pundit class’s seeming display of ‘Dunning-Kruger-ish tendencies’ in their bombastic coverage of the election.” However, speculation by scientists does not always translate into statistically-significant findings, so Anson began thinking of ways to experimentally test what he described as a “very serious accusation.”
Dr. Anson conducted online surveys to more than 2,600 Americans to ensure a representative sample. The first survey assessed political knowledge. The second measured confidence in their knowledge. Participants were asked questions about names of cabinet members, lengths of terms for members of Congress, as well as the names of the programs the U.S. government has the lowest spending on.
The results revealed that those with low levels of political knowledge also overestimated the level of their knowledge, as predicted. This wasn’t the only thing. The Dunning-Kruger effect became even more powerful when participants were provided cues to encourage partisan thinking. This was true for both Republicans and Democrats. However, it only occurred in those with low political knowledge.
These results are both fascinating and troubling. How can you fight ignorance when ignorant people believe they are knowledgeable? It is even worse when America is becoming more polarized which increases the visibility of partisan identities.
Anson’s results suggest that overconfidence can be caused by being ignorant. However, studies show that Democrats are more educated than Republicans. This could make them more susceptible to the Dunning–Kruger effect. In fact, a Pew Research Center Pool released in March of this year found that 54 percent of college graduates identified as Democrats or leaned Democratic, compared to 39 percent who identified or leaned Republican.
This may explain why Trump supporters are so easy to fool into believing proven falsehoods by the President when he delivers “alternative facts,” which often use language to activate partisan identities. They may not have the knowledge they need but feel confident they do. This makes them less likely to verify the claims made by the President.
Evidence from empirical studies supports this speculation. An experiment in 2016 found that 45 per cent of Republicans believed the Affordable Care Act contained “death panels.” A 2015 study found that 54 percent believed Barack Obama was a Muslim.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is particularly worrisome when considering issues that pose existential threats, like global warming. For example, a 2017 University of New Hampshire study found that only 25% of Trump supporters believe that human activities are contributing to climate change. However, 97 percent of climate scientists agree with that belief.
Donald Trump may be using this quirky cognitive bias to make it easier to tell unchallenged lies to his less educated followers. These individuals may not only be uninformed but also unlikely to attempt to learn more on their own. They believe they know everything.
Although such thoughts are disturbing, it is not impossible to find solutions for the Dunning-Kruger effect victims. At least one study found that incompetent students increased their ability to accurately estimate their class rank after being tutored in the skills they lacked. With the right education methods and a willingness to learn, the uninformed on both sides of the political aisle can gain a meta-awareness that can help them perceive themselves more objectively.
Anson’s study shows that it becomes increasingly difficult to reach people as the country becomes more divided. And with Trump’s fiery rhetoric and fear-mongering, that divide appears to be growing wider.