What’s the scariest thing about Palin?

A.  Her being reprimanded for abusing her power as Alaska governor after holding that office less than two years?
B.  Her view of herself as on a divine mission from a fundamentalist god?
C.  Her unabashed whipping crowds into a frenzy by repeatedly chanting that Obama is a terrorist?

I’m going with D.  When John McCain asked her to be Vice President, she boasts, “I didn’t blink.”

Watching Palin in the VP debate with Joe Biden, I had a strong gut reaction I couldn’t explain: sheer terror at what might happen if this person were President — if McCain (AKA “Other foot on a banana peel”) were elected and anything happened to him.  Today, however, I understand why I was and am so frightened.

I would expect a person who understood the seriousness of the job to “blink” indeed — to pause to think about it, and to ask herself, “Could I be ready in Jan 2009 to potentially serve as the leader of the free world?”  Palin seems proud of the fact that she did not pause to think, even for a moment, and to wonder if she were indeed up to the enormous responsibility being VP would entail.  Her naive pride makes me quake in my shoes.

Here’s why I’m so scared.  In 1999, researchers at Cornell experimentally confirmed what I had long suspected — that the worse people perform at a task, the more likely they are to overestimate their competence.  It gets worse: not only do incompetent people overestimate their level of skills, but also the worse someone is at a skill, the more grossly she overestimates her own ability at it.

The New York Times reported the on this experiment shortly after it was published [link below].  It used two complex tasks: a test of recognizing grammatically correct standard English, and a test of recognizing what was funny, for which subjects rated the humorousness of thirty jokes on a scale of one to eleven.  (The jokes had been rated by a panel of comedians which included Al Franken).

Then subjects estimated by percentile how competent they thought they were at each skill.

The researchers found that people whose competence was below the 60th percentile would overestimate their performance  — and the further their scores below the 60th percentile, the more grossly they would overestimate their skills, to the point where “bottom-quartile participants were nearly 4 times more miscalibrated than their top-quartile counterparts” (page 1131).

Why?  Because, unsurprisingly, the skills necessary for competence are also necessary to recognize and rate competence.  (The researchers also list many previous studies that also suggest this conclusion).
People whose performance rated at above  the 70th percentile, however, would err in the opposite direction: they would tend to underestimate their own performance, and the higher they ranked, the more severely they would underestimate it.

Both these findings matched what I have observed in my years of teaching writing: While strong performers are uniformly  modest in their self-assessments — I can’t count the number of really talented writers I’ve met who have told me, “I know I need to work on my writing” — the ones with the lowest scores are the ones most willing to tramp into my office demanding to know why their essays were awarded a D [a question whose only truly honest answer would be, “Because I was feeling generous that day.”]

So no wonder the fact that Palin would so blithely offer that she “didn’t blink,” as if that somehow qualified her for the leadership of the free world, scares me to death.  Her apparently baseless confidence signals to me that she doesn’t understand what a huge task being Vice President would be — and is clueless that intellectually she simply may not be up to it.

The NYTimes covered this experiment.

Original article: Kruger, Justin, and David Dunning.  “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own
Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1999), Vol. 77, No. 6. pages 1121-1134.  <http://www.apa.org/journals/features/psp7761121.pdf>

4 Responses to What’s the scariest thing about Palin?

  1. Matt says:

    God, I know. Palin worries me because, like Bush, she’s so damn sure that whatever she happens to be thinking is correct and good – just because she’s thinking it. And regardless of any evidence to the contrary. Or, you know, logic.

    I mean, how do you argue with someone who has the intellectual capacity of Dilbert’s boss?

  2. Kris says:

    Exactly. I think this study may point to more definitive proof of what we have all known for so long: Bush and Palin aren’t that bright.

    Here’s a piece in the New Yorker from George Saunders, short-story writer and satirist extraordinaire, imagining Palin’s pride at her lack of blinking, and commenting on the general decrying of “elitism” by the Republicans:


  3. Kam says:

    I agree – Palin’s mantra – “you don’t blink” – is the pinnacle of arrogance. Too bad only competent people question their own competence.

  4. Kam says:

    OK, that New Yorker article may just be the funniest thing I’ve ever read. Well, this week at least. Thanks, Kris.

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