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A Scientific Explanation for Why Trump Considers Himself a Genius

Everyone knows at least one person who always overestimates their knowledge of every subject, even when they're at odds with actual experts as well as established facts. Turns out, there's a scientific term for those kinds of know-it-alls. It's called the Dunning-Kruger effect: a condition in which people overestimate their knowledge of a given subject.

We're all susceptible to it in some degree. It probably won't take you very long to think of a time you were absolutely certain about something just to find out you had it wrong the whole time—say you were positive you knew who starred in some blockbuster movie from decades past but a quick Google search shows you were actually mistaken. That's a standard case of the Dunning-Kruger effect. But in some people, it can manifest in extremes. Take Christopher Duntsch, the disgraced former neurosurgeon who was sentenced to life in prison due to horrific malpractice. The man was highly confident in his skills, yet inexcusably incompetent in practice.

As David Dunning—one of the two researchers the Dunning-Kruger effect is named for—explains, the effect is particularly dangerous when people in positions of power don't have anyone to hold them accountable for their mistakes.

"You get into a situation where people can be too deferential to the people in charge," Dunning told The Washington Post. "You have to have people around you that are willing to tell you you're making an error."

Dunning and his colleague observed the effect in practice back in the late 1990s, when they asked participants in a study to rate themselves compared to others based on how well they thought they did on a test. They found that people who scored as low as the 10th percentile often ranked themselves nearer the 70th percentile. And even when people knew next to nothing about a given topic, they often believed they were just as informed as experts.

Twenty years later, the Dunning-Kruger effect has been getting more attention than it ever has, with Google searches peaking in May 2017 and holding pretty steady ever since. Dunning thinks this has a lot to do with the current political climate in the US and people are looking to his research for possible answers.

"Obviously it has to do with Trump and the various treatments that people have given him," Dunning said. "So yeah, a lot of it is political. People trying to understand the other side. We have a massive rise in partisanship and it's become more vicious and extreme, so people are reaching for explanations."

But it doesn't sound like much of a reach considering that Trump repeatedly calls himself a genius even though there's so much evidence to the contrary.

The worst part about all of this is that those people who are prone to the Dunning-Kruger effect in the most egregious degrees don't value self-improvement and don't take criticism very well. So it looks like Trump will never change.


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