Somehow, to many people in the Philadelphia region, it was obvious from the start that Hurricane Irene would turn out to be much wimpier than the experts forecast. And this week their smug i-told-you-so attitude is saturating the comments sections of publications and seeping into editorial pages.
How did they know all the forecasts and news stories were hype? If you listen to them, it’s because they’re smarter than the rest of us. Only a fool would be so dumb as to worry just because a swirling mass of wind and water bigger than Texas was headed our way.
To psychologists, there are other possible explanations for this week’s smugness. First, there’s something called outcome bias, said Penn evolutionary psychologist Rob Kurzban. In short, that’s the tendency people have when they make a correct guess to assume after-the-fact that they arrived at their answer through their prescience and insight. Once a guess turns out to be correct, it became a calculation based on obvious empirical facts to which all those dummies were blind.
Also at play may be the tendency people have to assume the most confidence when they have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about, said Kurzban. Called the Dunning-Kruger effect, he said, it occurs because the ignorant lack the insight to recognize their own errors.
The Dunning-Kruger effect also biases highly competent people against themselves, because they assume all those loudmouths disagreeing with them must actually know something. And often the more you know, the more complicated you realize the issues are and the less sure you become.
In his recent book, “Why Everyone Else is a Hypocrite,” Kurzban explains a number of similar patterns of human self-deception. In study after study, people tend to see themselves in a falsely positive light in most things - whether it's intelligence, social skills, looks or physical or emotional health.
We expect this to be the case so much that it became front page news earlier this year that 52% of college students rate their emotional health as below average. Never mind that about half of them are, after all, going to be below average.
Kurzban suggests there are advantages to appearing confident. It could be seen as a kind of mimicry, in which the clueless can appear confident and knowledgeable. In our highly social world, that can buy someone status, goods and even the affections of the opposite sex.
Of course this doesn’t apply to you. You used reason and smarts to predict Irene would be a fizzle, just as you knew Katrina would be a monster. Too bad all those meteorologists and news people aren’t as smart as you.