Illusory Superiority

thomas Blog

A long long time ago, in a galaxy far far away (London in 1995) I used to wake up listening to the radio. I remember hearing to a fascinating discussion one morning about driving and psychology.

A study had been published that showed, most people, when asked, thought that they were good drivers, and virtually everyone rated themselves as above average, compared with other drivers.

At the time I was learning how to drive and I hadn’t yet passed my test. I realised that when I thought about it, I too considered myself to be a good driver, and I definitely thought of myself as above average. I had no empirical evidence to support this perception, aside from having not crashed my parents car (near misses didn’t count) and being pretty good at playing the computer game, Mario Kart.

This psychological phenomena I experienced is popularly referred to as illusory superiority and more scientifically as the Dunning-Kruger effect. In 2000, Dunning and Kruger won a nobel prize for a research paper titled “Unskilled And Unaware Of it – How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead To Inflated Self-Assessments”. They proved that the majority of people who were incompetent in a range of tasks could not accurately appraise their own lack of ability and most incorrectly thought they were above average compared with everyone else. They showed that, only when a previously poor performer became competent, could they look back and recognise their earlier lack of ability.

A team of researchers from Dartmouth University led by Dr Sydney Finkelstein conducted the largest ever research project governing business failure. They found that smart executives of failed companies consistently demonstrated traits of choosing not to cope with innovation and change, whereby they clung to an inaccurate view of reality, relied too much on what worked in the past, ignored key information and consequently, their companies failed because they brilliantly fulfilled the wrong vision.

Many executives find coping with innovation and change to be a major challenge because the unfamiliar is innately uncomfortable until it becomes familiar. Viriginir Satir, the World famous family therapist, said that after survival, the strongest human instinct is familiarity.

Advances in network and computing technology are rapidly transforming the way people communicate, interact, learn and make decisions. A cursory glance at social media stats will demonstrate such explosive growth. This rate of change creates a challenge for executives who’s view of reality will go out of date unless they consciously and purposefully engage in future reconnaissance; explorations and activities that, as a side effect, update their way of thinking. However, for many executives, the importance of purposefully updating their mindsets may be invisible due to the Dunning-Kruger effect; whereby they falsely assume they are competent because they don’t yet know enough to recognise they are not.

For example, YouTube has evolved to become the 2nd largest online search engine, streaming over a billion videos per day Worldwide, and every minute over 24 hours of video is uploaded. Earlier this year, I spoke to a senior technology innovation advisor to the Irish government who told me they had never even used YouTube. I wonder if the said advisor is able to fully appreciate and conceptualise the demand for faster internet connections if they haven’t had the experience of waiting too long for a video clip to play or personally experienced the value that video-on-demand facilitates for learning, like watching

Young people tend to be much more naturally engaged in future reconnaissance, and are often quicker to explore and play with new ways of doing things. I’d love to see the government have a panel of 20-year olds advising them on innovation strategy, but many leaders and TD’s don’t know they need such advice, because they don’t understand what they don’t know.

“In an evolving society, if you stand still, you go backwards” – Robert Anton Wilson

So, if you’re a marketing executive who is more likely to read a newspaper offline than online, who has no idea what an RSS feed or a Google Alert is, then perhaps you need to engage in the art of future reconnaissance and consciously and purposefully update your mindset, by exploring the environments of the future, relative to the way you think about the World now.

Here is one way to achieve this: Find the smartest, tech savvy, 20 year old you have access to and hire them as your future reconnaissance mentor. You could, for example, offer to buy them an iPad in exchange for spending a certain number of hours with you to help you recognise how out of date you seem relative to them, thus overcoming any illusory superiority that was demoting the importance of playing with technology. Tell them their brief is to take you on an in-depth tour of their World of technology and communication; how they use social media, YouTube, how they use their mobile phone and how they and their friends consume and share information. Compare notes on how you do things and how they overcome anything you find frustrating. Pay particular attention to any ways their use of tools allows them to be much more productive than you.

By engaging in your own future reconnaissance, you can recalibrate your mind to what is more likely to work in 2010, and in turn, overcome the traits of smart executives who failed. If you make it a habit to consciously and purposefully keep up to date by exploring how technology is changing the underpinnings of society, you’ll be able to make better decisions about interactive marketing strategies and better apply your existing wisdom to evolving mediums. By upgrading the software in your brain, you upgrade your likelihood of success in changing and challenging times.

(as published in The Digital Times)