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Understanding Trump: Dunning-Kruger Cognitive Bias

By Shlomo Maital

     Having trouble understanding President Trump?   Read thousands of words and columns, blasting Trump, but you still (like me) do not understand who IS this guy?

     Read David Brooks (Op Ed, New York Times, May 15)….   He has figured it out. Trump has a syndrome. Dunning Kruger Cognitive Bias.

       What is it?   Here is the definition: *

     Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error.

     Meaning?   Incompetent people think they are more competent than they are, precisely because…they are incompetent. Trump highly overestimates his abilities (“best speech ever to Congress on healthcare”,   “how to fix America’s aircraft carriers”, etc.).

       People with Dunning-Kruger, who lead nations, are very very dangerous. Not knowing is one thing. Not knowing you don’t know is quite another. And when you lead the world’s most powerful, wealthy nation?   Disaster. Moreover, people around Trump cannot control him, and are fired abruptly when they oppose him, a corollary of Dunning-Kruger.  Trump is at the summit of Mount Stupid (see diagram), and since January 20, has proven to be there with blunders almost daily.

       What will happen?   Let’s see if America’s constitution and political institutions are capable and resilient enough to deal with this disastrous cognitive bias.


* Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David “Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 77(6), Dec 1999, 1121-1134.




How to Choose People to Hire

By Shlomo Maital


   Hiring people for either a startup or established company is one of the most crucial decisions senior managers make. And in my experience, many mistakes are made.

   Whom should you hire? How should you hire? David Brooks writes about it in his New York Times column today, “the employer’s creed”.  

   Here are some of his rules, and I’ve added a few of my own.

   Avoid people with “a high talent for social conformity”. You want to have people to tell you what you DON’T want to hear, not what you do want to hear. There are enough of the latter already.

   Don’t favor people with high GPA’s.  I’ve found that the grade-grubbers (hey, I WAS one once, damaged my brain permanently) are not the creative mavericks you want to hire.

   Reward honesty.  Choose people who write honest applications, rather than sugar-coated ones with chocolate icing. You want honesty above all. Beware of the liars, even little white lies.

   Hire infected people – evangelists. This comes from Guy Kawasaki, the Macintosh guru. He was a psychology grad, jewellery business person, no tech experience – and he made the Mac a big success. Why? Because he was ‘infected’, an evangelist (in Greek – someone who brings the good news). Hire people who share your passion, not those looking to flip their options. 

   Hire diverse people. If you have a diverse workforce, you are more likely to get good ideas. Your range of people, their personalities, skills, passions, need to be wide, so that you can do ‘zoom out’ on new ideas far wider and better.

   Invest a lot of time and effort in hiring. I know a CEO of a Canadian company, who hangs out with potential management hires for a whole day, lunches with them, plays squash with them…   to get to know them. That will save you a whole lot of trouble in the future. If you make a bad hire, by the time you realize it much damage may have happened.

   Never ever abandon hiring solely to your HR people. They hire according to the book they learned in college. Sometimes, when you hire, you need to throw the book away. Make hiring your own key responsibility.

 Who am I?  Montaigne & Self-Awareness

By Shlomo  Maital  


Michel de Montaigne was one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance,  b. 1533, d. 1592,  a short 59-year life.   He wrote thoughtful essays that investigated his own thoughts, and personality. 

   Writing in his New York Times column, David Brooks tackles Montaigne, along with another great essayist, Samuel Johnson. I doubt there is another columnist alive who would dare to make a column out of two authors who have been dead for hundreds of years.    As a high school French student in Regina, Canada, I once impetuously wrote an essay on Montaigne – but the truth is, I didn’t understand a word of what he wrote. 

    Brooks quotes Montaigne:  “If others examined themselves attentively as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense.  Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself.  We are all steeped in it, but those who are aware of it are a little better off.”

    In others words, as Nietzsche counselled, “become who you are”.  But first, understand who you are.

    I teach young people in many countries.  Increasingly I find that Generation Y, those born after 1980, lack an understanding of who they really are, and what their passions are.  The reason seems to be the connectedness of the smartphone.  Why bother to know what you really think, if you can ask others instantly?  If you are permanently instantly linked to others,  how can you ever build self-awareness, when your own self disappears in the swamp of ‘connected socially-networked others’?   How can you become who you are, if you do not ever really know who you are?   

     There is a kind of serenity that comes with self-awareness.  I deeply regret that many troubled people I encounter never achieve that serenity.  It starts with recognizing our own faults, our own flawed character.  If you are constantly looking outward, at what others are tweeting and posting, you will never have time and space to look inward. And that’s a real shame.  

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
September 2017
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