T. John Dick and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

22 Jan
"T. John Dick - A Case Study of the Dunning-Kruger Effect in the American Workplace" (Minimum order 500 copies)

“T. John Dick – A Case Study of the Dunning-Kruger Effect in the American Workplace”
(Minimum order 500 copies)

Since they first appeared, my books have been seen by readers and reviewers as an illustration of the famous Peter Principle. This principle, advanced by Laurence J. Peter in his book, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong, co-authored with Raymond Hull, holds that people will eventually be promoted to their level of incompetence.

Well, I’m not so sure about that, for two reasons.

Firstly it presupposes a certain level of competence beyond which the manager has been promoted. While the novels do not provide any insight into T. John Dick’s early corporate career (Do I hear calls for a prequel? No? Oh well.), there is little in his character to suggest previous competence.

Secondly, and more importantly, the Peter Principle was outlined in a humorous book. This makes it unsuitable as a basis for the proposal I am about to make.

Before I get to that proposal, let me draw your attention to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Heard of it? If so, that makes you a bit of a smarty-pants. The kind of smarty-pants that reads the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, in which David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the Department of Psychology at Cornell University published their research. Or at least someone who knows how to look them up on Wikipedia.

Dunning and Kruger suggested that incompetent people tend to think that they are actually pretty awesome and conversely those with a high level of competence tend to underestimate their level of skill in comparison with others.

They were not the first to realize this. In fact, in their paper, they quoted Charles Darwin : “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” Or as Bertrand Russell put it: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” Also, this phenomenon is blindingly obvious to anyone who has ever worked in an office. It’s why the blurb on the back of The Rise and Fall of T. John Dick begins, “Nobody has more confidence in the abilities of marketing executive T. John Dick than TJ himself.”

But Dunning and Kruger went further. First of all, they proved it scientifically with a proper experiment and everything. Secondly, they added some additional observations. Let’s take a closer look.

For a given skill, incompetent people will:

1. tend to overestimate their own level of skill
2. fail to recognize genuine skill in others
3. fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy
4. recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill

Number 4 is quite interesting, in that it suggests that there is sometimes hope for the incompetent. Perhaps something to explore in the next T. John Dick adventure. The first three, on the other hand, are embodied in TJ to such an extent that he might almost be a case study.

"T. John Dick - Another Case Study of the Dunning-Kruger Effect in the American Workplace" (You really need this one too)

“T. John Dick – Another Case Study of the Dunning-Kruger Effect in the American Workplace”
(Serious students need this one too)

Which leads me to the proposal I mentioned earlier. It seems to me that I have been missing out on the lucrative academic market.*  How many thousands of copies could be sold if prescribed as course material for psychology students? I’m guessing the answer is lots of thousands. So I’m asking all the psychology professors amongst my readership to think about how we might do business. I’m sure we could work out something that would benefit us both, if you get my meaning.

I’m quite open to changing the name of the academic edition to “T. John Dick – A Case Study of the Dunning-Kruger Effect in the American Workplace,” or some other eggheaded title of your choice.

You know how to reach me.

* – Not missing out completely. The Management Secrets of T. John Dick has occasionally been purchased by inattentive curators of university business departments – the University of Trinidad and Tobago, for instance, has two copies.

PS: For anyone interested in finding out more about the Dunning-Kruger effect, here’s a link to an interesting article at Ars Technica.

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