Kruger? I Dunning Know Her

Academics have notoriously diagnosed themselves with impostor syndrome (IS). An idea so good that it has basically ascended to the level of clichéd truism, IS is the phenomenon of seemingly smart and accomplished people believing that they are phonies, who somehow sweet-talked their way into achieving some kind of social status or distinction despite being secretly unqualified. As impostors, they fear constantly that the mask will slip and they will be exposed as the inadequate people that they really are.

This disorder is particularly prevalent in institutions that are highly invested in both meritocracy and ritual self-abnegation — performing arts high schools on TV shows, graduate school, Communist parties and other left-wing movements, various religious orders and cults. (“Everybody thinks they don’t belong here, but the difference is I really don’t.”) The TV series The Good Place was, at least initially, a brilliant meta-joke about impostor syndrome.

Like any process that promotes conspicuous self-evaluation, IS is vulnerable to cooptation by impure motives. Everyone has to have impostor syndrome now, because if you don’t, you must be an arrogant douchebag; if you do have IS, then you are compelled to performatively self-denigrate while fishing for compliments or, worse, humble-bragging. (“I know someone like me could never get into this program… [wink wink…]”) The universal epidemic of impostor syndrome masks an even more horrible truth: maybe we are secretly confident but too ashamed to admit it.

The public health crisis of IS is, though, not quite universal, as anyone who has dated a business major knows. It’s a fairly well-established fact that men are more likely to overestimate their performance (in, ahem, many arenas) while women are prone to more realistically assess or, most often, underestimate their abilities. And human life on earth itself is currently in an abusive relationship with a sociopathic business major, on the most epic scale imaginable.

Indeed, the President of the United States is the world’s most noteworthy sufferer of the Dunning-Kruger effect (DKE), which is basically the opposite of impostor syndrome. Those who are afflicted with DKE think they are smarter or better than they actually are — in large part because, lacking intelligence and morality, they have no reliable metric to judge what smarts and goodness actually are. Somehow, the world is divided between neurotic smart people who think they are stupid and sociopathic stupid people who think they are geniuses. Friend-of-the-blog Jeffrey Epstein certainly never doubted that he was one of the world’s great minds, even if he was merely a pedophile pimp on the speed dial of the least decent people who have ever lived. Clarence Thomas almost definitely believes he is better at Supreme Court Justiceing than anyone since Roger B. Taney.

So it goes. Here is this week’s round-up of the best of the web:

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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