Arrogant Ignorance

Over the years, I have developed a term "arrogant ignorance" to describe certain people we deal with from time to time.

We often get young and inexperienced contract managers assigned to one of our relationships.   These folks will struggle, due to lack of experience and fragmentary training, to perform their duties, because they really don't know what to do in many circumstances.  We accept the fact that we often know more about our contract manager's job than she knows herself, and try to help them get up to speed.

However, occasionally these folks, despite very obviously not knowing what they are doing, get hugely arrogant and refuse to admit they don't know what they are doing.  They fire off orders and decisions that not only are wrong, but simply make no sense, and then yell at us within seconds for not complying with their bizarre requirements.   I have always scratched my head over this syndrome, and have assumed that it resulted from a combination of:

  • a young person with absolutely no education and experience in how to work in a high-performing organization.  (think about the organizations a 20-something has seen -- public schools, college faculty, maybe a non-profit over the summer, fake businesses on TV -- nothing that would give them any clue how a high-performing organization works).
  • really bad incentives.  Typically, the worst examples have non-existent formal performance management systems where the informal metrics therefore reign.  These informal metrics often default to things like "always look busy" or "always look like you know what you are doing" or "never do anything that will cause your boss to yell at you" or "never get caught making a bureaucratic process error.

Well, I was thrilled today to find that the syndrome I call "arrogant ignorance" actually has a name.  It was mentioned in this article by Simple Justice and is called the Dunning Kruger effect.   Here is the first line from Wikipedia:

The Dunning"“Kruger effect is an example of cognitive bias in which "people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it"[1]. They therefore suffer an illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average.

This also helps to explain another phenomenon we tend to see -- that the absolute worst, most incompetant, most clueless employees tend to be the first (and often only) ones who call me and threaten me with lawsuits over false termination.  The article goes on:

  1. Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
  2. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
  3. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.

But at least there is this ray of hope:

4.  If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill.


  1. John Anderson:

    5. Failing at 4, they are rapidly moved into a middle-management position... ;)

  2. Steve:

    I read this and I immediately think of the whole vaccination/autism "debate" where mother's intuition and Hollywood fame (Jenny McCarthy) are seen as a worthy substitute for science.

  3. Ed Kless:

    Can we put all members of Congress through some training on this? I would even WANT my tax dollars spent in this area!

  4. gmsc:

    There's an excellent video on YouTube on exactly this, and it's called "Illusion of Superiority". It discusses the basic findings and what they mean. It's easy to find if you search YouTube for "Dunning–Kruger effect".

  5. Troy Tempest:

    Interesting point. I would add that these arrogant ignorant douchebags can be easily found bloviating on Fox News most any time of day.

  6. Ray:

    There is hope....They all seem to be migrating to construction oversight positions, I build water systems. Given the right incentive (or bad day) I would consider creating a subsurface monumment to ignorance by layering geotechs and concrete in one of these dry wells we drill.

    Erosion would eventually expose a concrete pillar with a bad attitude filled with bones, clipboards, way too many pens, and WTF, open toed shoes any where near drillrig?

  7. Matt:

    It seems to me that at that their core, most people like the ones you describe are terrified of being wrong. If they can be wrong about some trivial form, they can be wrong about *anything*, and that horribly scares them. They seem to often try to smother that fear with overbearance, a la, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." (

    Compare them to people you know who will freely admit that they don't know something.

    It's the same as the difference between frank honesty and desperate lying.

  8. Mesa Econoguy:

    However, occasionally these folks, despite very obviously not knowing what they are doing,

    Nancy Pelosi?

    get hugely arrogant and refuse to admit they don’t know what they are doing.

    Nancy Pelosi?

    a young (please) person with absolutely no education and experience

    Nancy Pelosi?

    really bad incentives

    Nancy Pelosi?

  9. Bob Hawkins:

    Picture someone brought up under the "self esteem is everything" paradigm. Now he gets a real job.

    What surprises me is that he doesn't roll up into the fetal position and refuse to come out. My theory is that TV gets the credit. "NCIS" is the closest thing to reality he's ever seen.

  10. Hammer:

    To quote myself (sorry): "Smart people don't mind finding out they were wrong; they will likely do something smart to make up for it pretty soon. Stupid people, well who knows how long it will take them."

    I find that this phenomena is not only very common in organizations, but that it also tends to feed upon itself, as the superiors don't like their ignorance being demonstrated, and promote people who will agree with them no matter what.

  11. ElamBend:

    I must have read it here because I've been using the same term to describe the phenomena for a while. In my mind I always relate it to a certain kind of overly-loud and opinionated red neck type that had a bull-headedness that made management a nightmare and intellectual conversation a non-starter. Since leaving the hinterlands I've seen this in all manner of people of different origins and education and I think some of the attitude comes from the very reasons people above have attributed it. I think it's frustrating because although number 4 above may be true, getting to that point is so hard that many don't care to try, particularly in regular conversation.