Cognition & Universal Anosognosia

If you sense that you are unable to discover truth on your own, whom will you ask?

 The person with the most authoritative voice?
The most certain?
The most eloquent?
The most sincere?

All these are available in your local wayward clergyman and politician.

You are doomed! Stuck with “the anosognosic’s dilemma”: If you can’t figure something out, you are equally incapable of judging who has the expertise you lack, to figure it out for you; so certainty is not an option.

 Listen to me! At least I understand the question…

So far, I don’t see evidence that the academic community is taking a great deal of interest in Errol Morris’s/Dunning’s/Kruger’s elaboration of the Dunning-Kruger Effect in “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma.” I experienced it as such an epiphany – like a firework rocket’s starburst over a distant field – because it demands of me both tolerance and acceptance of a range of human foibles I have often felt were simply contemptible.

I most readily think of what I sense is conservatives’ compassion deficit, which enables them to rationalize discontinuing food stamps and unemployment insurance because of their “principles,” accompanied by their protective myths about the groups on whose necks they have their boots.

Dunning/Kruger found that the least-competent in any domain are the most likely to believe themselves superior; and it is this characteristic that I find hardest to swallow: that they and their constituents not only pursue this abomination, but are so smugly self-righteous about it. And I don’t remember D/K suggesting any palliative.

Even if it’s true that deficits in compassion are the result of legislators’ failure to reach spiritual maturity, though, I grieve for the practical results: the misery of millions because of ideologues’ willful ignorance of the realities of grinding poverty, and their self-serving fantasies about character defects of the poor. Some live their whole lives with inadequate food, heat, and shelter. I have lived that way, before there was a safety net of any significance, in severely limited circumstances. I have felt fear, hopelessness, and despair.

One huge advantage of our civilization and culture, though, is that they have ways of enabling others who haven’t had these experiences to still empathize with them. Dickens and Steinbeck were my earliest aids from the arts. Paul Ryan, however, encountered the delusions of grandeur in Ayn Rand which “changed his life”! That’s an undesirable alternate path into our culture. And why is it so difficult for me to imagine Mitt Romney reading Grapes of Wrath?

To profit from the modeling of compassion in the arts requires a well-developed moral imagination. Ideally this enables one to walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins; but sometimes that’s impossible – for instance, I can’t do it completely for a gay person because I don’t have the foundational feeling to build on. I can, however, do my best to walk beside him, which can provide me some intellectual fellow-feeling, but not an emotional one.


What made me think about the D/K Effect again was my wife Lenore’s recent hip replacement surgery. Her surgeon made no opportunity for questions after the operation, his web site didn’t mention handicapped access to his office, and his waiting room chairs had no armrests, which is important for patients with new hips and knees. For them, sitting is a painful event, and armrests make it easier.

All those things make me certain that the man is not capable of much empathy, which also leads to his inability to hire empathetic staff. Even one year ago, his apparent carelessness would have made me angry. Frankly, it still does, even though I now argue with myself that the man is an emotional cripple, who falls somewhere low on the autism scale, and is therefore hard to blame. The same is true for the congressmen who deny food stamps to the poor.

We have several acquaintances, including a veterinarian and an optometrist, who also apparently suffer from this empathy deficit; yet I find them both likable. If I were to accuse any one of them of lacking compassion he would sincerely deny it, though, perhaps because he thinks that the full range of compassion tops out where his own does. And that’s anosognosia, for the particular case of empathy/compassion.

As Dunning knows, the only hope for the orthopedic surgeon, for example, is for someone he trusts to convince him of his deficit – in which case he would have to try also to find someone to constantly keep him out of trouble, since he cannot be “cured.” He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know; and he never will know, viscerally. He is blind.

I once had a boss with the problem. His own boss told him when he hired him that he needed to cut me out of crisis management – which was often required in the nature of our business – because I was trying to monopolize power. (He assumed my character resembled his own.) My new boss had no understanding, himself, of human behavior so proceeded for about a year to make a mess of things; but he slowly accepted that I was competent after all, and that he was in trouble. He asked for my help, and I helped him; but I suspect that was the rarest serendipity.

In Errol Morris’s article, he asked David Dunning to write about this subject, which he did at some length. Then he wrote “I would write more, and there’s probably a lot more to write about, but I haven’t a clue what that all is.” Hang a garland on that man’s head!


The occurrences of any human attribute can be shown distributed along a spectrum shaped in a bell curve. Here are some from the realm of cognition:

general intelligence (“IQ”)
social intelligence
common sense
emotional sensitivity
sense of humor
gullibility/supernatural belief/religiosity

I have gotten interested in imagining how the concept applies in each of these domains. For anyone engaged in using one of these attributes, he cannot speak legitimately about any level above the limit his own mind is subject to. An article appeared recently in The Guardian asking whether one can be too smart. It was a silly article, as were almost all the comments, which were clearly written by people unfamiliar with the territory – including all the familiar folk “wisdom” such as the proximity of genius and insanity, and the ineptitude of smart people in matters requiring common sense.

I have done this myself – reached “the level of my incompetence” (the Peter Principle) and, not recognizing the limit as I shoot past it, continue to bloviate until I catch myself (or don’t), all the while making an ass of myself. I remember doing it when my son was small, and had asked one of those “why” questions. I was rambling on, and suddenly stopped and said “I don’t actually know what I’m talking about,” inadvertently teaching him, instead, one of his first lessons about the fallibility of a parent.

My new understanding helps me a great deal to be forgiving if I speculate that someone is acting boorish, because acting otherwise is beyond the range of his ability. It would be better if I had figured this out myself ages ago, without Dunning’s/Kruger’s insight – but I didn’t. I’m 75, and still imperfect. How disappointing. I’ll think about it tomorrow.


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