Monday, June 21, 2010

Dunning-Kruger Effect in U.S. policy

There is an article in the NYT about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which refers to the idea that incompetent people are too incompetent to know they're incompetent.

Dunning and Kruger argued in their paper, “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.  Instead, like Mr. Wheeler, they are left with the erroneous impression they are doing just fine.”

This is crying out for application to U.S. policy toward Latin America, which is loaded historically with unintended consequences, blowback, and persistent application of policies despite their obvious failure.  Most of the people making key decisions know little or nothing about Latin America, and in fact know so little that they are unaware of how little they know.

Explanations of the Cuba embargo, for example, often focus on how visceral hatred of Fidel Castro along with domestic constituencies cloud rational thinking (along these lines, see Morley and McGillion book Unfinished Business).  What if we added the hypothesis that many policy makers continued to believe the embargo would work, and their own incompetence precluded awareness not only that they weren't working, but that they couldn't?


Anonymous,  1:38 PM  

Hmm... Do you see the irony in this post?

Why would you think that the policy towards Cuba was a failure? Just because you disagree with it?

Clearly the policy had many objectives, including keeping happy an important domestic constituency and sending signals to other countries about what could happen to them.

leftside 1:57 PM  

Fair enough, but I'd argue the vast majority of people (competent or not) are too invested in their logic to ever see the error of their ways. When you add the fact that most real "policy makers" and "policy experts" earn their living by towing a certain ideological line (namely the overarching belief in free markets and US hegemony), it gets even more difficult to rebel against those ideas.

leftside 2:04 PM  

Why would you think that the policy towards Cuba was a failure?

The way to measure a 50 year old policy is whether it has had the intended effect. Clearly it has not if you take the stated rationale at face value - to bring "democracy" and free markets to Cuba. But if you believe, like I do, that the unstated rationale is to ensure no country dares follow the Cuban model - or they will be attacked and economically strangled - then perhaps you are right - the policy has worked. But then we should acknowledge that the policy was never about the Cuba being a miserable failure for its people - and is instead about fear that Cuba could become a model.

Anonymous,  6:47 PM  

Cuba is a miserable failure. That doesn't mean it couldn't become a model for others.

leftside 8:33 PM  

Anon, that doesn't make sense. If Cuba is truly a miserable falure, why would anyone dare emulate it? The only reason is because capitalism has failed such large segments of Latin American society.

I don't think the people without access to water in Bolivia, or those in Brazil living with murders in their neighborhood every day, or those in Peru who have no chance to go to a University, or those street kids in El Salvador without jobs, etc. etc. would necessarily view Cuba as a miserable failure. Cuba is certainly no utopipa but it has managed to solve most of the dehumanizing problems Latin America still struggles with to this day.... all in the face of an unprecedented economic blockade and campaign of subversion.

Anonymous,  10:11 PM  

Are you joking? There are people who want Stalin back. Being a miserable failure can easily coexist with others seeing you as a model.

As for Cuba as a model, you live in the US right?

Justin Delacour 1:23 AM  

Cuba is a miserable failure.

A "miserable failure" relative to what? Perhaps if you would explain yourself, we could have an intelligible discussion.

To simply say Cuba is a "miserable failure" because that's what has been beaten into our heads for time immemorial does not suffice.

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