Arrogant Ignorance

Years ago I coined a term for a number of people I deal with in business -- "arrogant ignorance."  I don't mind running into folks who are young and inexperienced and admit such -- in fact, I like educating and training people and sharing what limited knowledge I have accumulated.  But what really sets me off are folks who have no idea about the subject on which they are making decisions but act as if their judgment is beyond question.  This tendency seems to be reinforced by organizations that have few real performance metrics and where, as such, looking like one knows what he or she is doing is more important than actually doing anything.

More recently, I found that this effect already has a name - Dunning-Kruger, though I think my term is much more evocative.  Anyway, this is an interesting article on Dunning-Kruger and its legitimacy in describing actual human behavior.

Via Tyler Cowen


  1. el coronado:

    you mean 'arrogant ignorance' like the wealthy business owner who pooh-poohs a tidal wave of illegal immigration? who belittles the costs and the crime that comes with it? who sneers, thurston howell-like, to people whose lives and property has been injured or destroyed or ruined by the illegals, "none of that sort of thing happens in *MY* neighborhood, old sport. you must be some sort of **racist**."

    you mean like that??

  2. DrTorch:

    Heh heh. El coronado, that's gonna leave a mark!

  3. Dr. T:

    The Dunning-Kruger effect is about how most people routinely overestimate their knowledge and skills and underestimate their weaknesses. People who exhibit the D-K effect typically are not arrogant. For example, a secretary may incorrectly believe that she is a better-than-average typist, but that doesn't significantly affect how she interacts with co-workers and customers. An engineer may incorrectly believe that he is smarter and more knowledgeable than his peers, but as long as he doesn't act like a know-it-all genius, he isn't exhibiting arrogant ignorance.

    Arrogant ignorance requires the D-K effect PLUS the personality trait of being an arrogant jerk. I find interesting the self-justification employed by some of these people. They attain positions beyond their knowledge, skills, and abilities, so they believe that some subjective aspects of their character entitle them to those positions despite their objective lack of qualifications.

    I worked (for a short time) with a lab manager who had gotten his position because he was a drinking buddy of a hospital vice-president. The lab manager was arrogant and dictatorial. When I challenged him about why someone as totally unqualified as he should have more authority than I (a qualified and experienced clinical pathology lab director), he said it was because he knew how to work better with higher administrators. (In reality, he continually lied to his bosses, blamed others for his many failures, and destroyed morale among the lab workers.) I've met other arrogant, ignorant people, but this manager was an exemplar.

  4. Chris:

    Right on about the lack of hard performance measures being an enabler to this kind of behavior. My exposure to university faculty life and non-profit organizations has driven this point home.

  5. Jeffrey Ellis:

    Shameless self-promotion alert... I posted about confidence vs competence (based on Dunning-Kruger) here and also used it to show why politicians are, basically, incompetent and arrogant.

  6. Engineer Bob:

    When I went to MIT for some joint industry/university research, this was one of the most interesting things.

    At this group in MIT, the only "sin" was hiding ignorance and pretending. Or even holding a neutral face while confused. Asking noob questions, even by faculty members, was strongly encouraged. No one knows everything.

    In the company I came from, there was a lot of information hiding by experts to protect their turf. And a lot of bluff and bluster by pointy-haired people pretending to be experts.

    I was really struck by the different culture.

  7. Michael:

    This starts at a young age. I got the unpleasant task of taking my sisters 11 y/o son down to the quay for his first time fishing experience. After landing a few sunfish, he headed down the quay to where a 10 y/o girl was pulling in bass and perch and promptly explained to her everything she was doing wrong.

  8. Gil:

    I sure a wealthy business owner would say "the unpleasantries of immigration are externalities and and those who favour open immigration are not to blame, besides, what of same externalities of the native-born?"

  9. thebastidge:

    This reminds me of my boss, two levels up. He's heavily involved in community theater, and seems to prefer people not show their ignorance even when it is justified and correctable. He recently yelled at some project managers for not demonstrating more knowledge and confidence over a project because one of them asked some questions during an open meeting. Another actually went and did something that would have taken longer to delegate. No no no, bad bad bad.

    It all reminds me of that part in Team America: World Police where the old dude says: "Now, get out there and act your ass off!"

  10. thebastidge:

    I should add that I work at a large public school district, at least for now.

  11. Val:

    I prefer 'deliberate and carefully rehearsed ignorance'. Fits better.

  12. dr kill:

    There is no doubt that persistently questioning everything is only common sense.