Home > applied science, brain, cognition, scientific thinking > Where did it all go so badly wrong? (Part 1: Anosagnosia, cognitive biases, cognitive diversity, expertise, incompetence)

Where did it all go so badly wrong? (Part 1: Anosagnosia, cognitive biases, cognitive diversity, expertise, incompetence)

[This is the first in a series of posts relevant to the all-consuming topic in Ireland at the moment: the fall of the Fianna Fail/Green Party Coalition Government, and the resulting general election to take place on the 25 February 2011. My title approximates a question/comment posed by a guest (I think it was Jim Glennon, the former FF TD) on George Hook’s programme on Newstalk].

(Figure with apologies and thanks to a variety of similar figures floating around the web)

‘We need to take difficult decisions’   Brian Lenihan

No, we actually need to take much better quality decisions, ones that acknowledge the frailty and error-proneness of human cognition, and which are capable of changing as circumstances change and knowledge evolves

Four times in eighty years (the 1930’s, ‘50’s, ‘80’s and now) the economy has been wrecked.  Rightly, there has been plenty of economic analysis (e.g.) of our current problems. There have also been attempts to locate our recurrent problem in the Irish personality (but nations don’t have personalities!), or in dispositions inherited from our colonial past (a novel research area for epigenetics, I suppose). Whatever about the Irish personality, there is no-one in power, and few alive, who remember Ireland as it was pre-1916/1921. We need to look for more proximate causes in the decisions made and executed by our national elites (the administrative, political and commercial classes in charge of the institutions powering the country).

How did our elites get it so spectacularly wrong? A useful way of looking at the problem is to focus on persistent and enduring cognitive biases and errors leading to faulty decision-making by individuals (political leaders, civil servants, bankers, etc.) and institutions (social systems and organisations: Government departments, banks, churches, etc). Looking for proximate causes in pervasive and enduring cognitive errors by individuals and institutions (the social systems within which collective cognition is organised) provides a route to prevent us persisting in correctable mistakes. Happily, we have a guide from more than fifty years of data in experimental psychology and experimental brain research to understand how human rationality and reason is bounded and error-prone. [UPDATE: see note at bottom]


The phrase ‘delusional’ has been used to describe the behaviour of certain members of our elites, but delusions imply the psychiatric diagnosis of pathological beliefs maintained contrary to all evidence. Anosagnosia (a more useful description) is the condition of literally being ‘without knowledge’ (being unaware) of a cognitive or other impairment, and behaving as if there is no problem. This might describe the issues regarding the lack of a regulatory response to capital adequacy in our banks!  Additionally, the knowledge and expertise required to solve the problems confronting us is both greater than our elites understand and can acknowledge. This leads to anosagnosia within the cultures of these organisations. Irish elites do not know that they do not know, nor do they even know what they need to know. The figure at top tries to capture this idea. Both the party political system and the civil service systems undervalue expertise and suppress cognitive diversity. Substantial data show that complex and difficult problems (for example, how to rescue a collapsing economy) are best solved by groups with substantial intellectual strength and capacity (obvious), and substantial diversity of experience (not obvious).Truth be told, the problems we are grappling with are beyond the judgement and capacity of the few teachers and the couple of lawyers comprising the bulk of the Cabinet just leaving office. And we still lack (with some exceptions) the high-level policy formation and broad expertise inputs required to support the Cabinet when it has to make crucial decisions.

Our political system is constructed so that the proving ground for national politics is local council politics. This experience leaves politicians good at political manoeuvring and vote-getting, but ill-prepares them for the national game, which ends up reflected through the prism of the local, rather than the national or international. This is why many of our competitor countries deliberately bring extra cognitive diversity into their political systems. Famously, the Cabinet of the US Government has only one elected politician (the President). However, it can field a Nobel Prize in Physics (Secretary of State for Energy, Steven Chu), and world-class economics expertise (Timothy Geithner; Austan Goolsbee). Some have disputed the necessity for some form of national list system because it would have resulted in Sean Fitzpatrick being nominated to the Dáil. (Has this been a conspicuous problem in countries with national list systems?) This is an interesting cognitive error – not exploring counterfactuals to this example, as these would falsify the claim. It is even more possible that many people of capacity and ability are turned off by the system as it currently stands. After all, we have plenty of talent, but it shies away from electoral politics (to all our costs). Such arguments may result from cognitive dissonance (the unpleasant feeling caused by holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously: for example, “our system isn’t delivering; I and my colleagues are good people and are part of the system; therefore it isn’t the system; the problems lie elsewhere” (with bad bankers, for example, although logically this may also be true!).The potential reduction in available Cabinet slots for non-list constituency candidates because of a list system presumably discommodes some too.

UPDATE: I forgot the Dunning-Kruger effect – a quote from the Wikipedia entry:

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to appreciate their mistakes.[1] The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their own abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. This leads to the situation in which less competent people rate their own ability higher than more competent people. It also explains why actual competence may weaken self-confidence. Competent individuals falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. “Thus, the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”[2]


Kruger and Dunning proposed that, 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 can be trained to substantially improve.

Now, who does this remind you of?

‘We need to take difficult decisions’
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