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The Dunning-Kruger effect is defined as the tendency in people with low abilities to be highly confident (to the point of arrogance) while people with high abilities to have low confidence (to the point of self-doubt). This post discusses how this effect results from the interaction between the dominant majority of people in tamas and a rare few people in rajas or sattva, due to the effects of modernization.

Domination of Tamas in Society

The vast majority of the people at present are in tamas. This means they have very low skills, they cannot think deeply about any subject, they don’t want to endeavor, they expect to get everything without hard work, and they are too arrogant to accept any shortcomings.

A very small number of people are in rajas. They believe in hard work and honest living, they focus on developing their skills and abilities as a precondition to their happiness, they are able to think better, and they are confident in their abilities to achieve their desired goals.

Finally, the people in sattva, with the highest ability, long-term thinking, ability to think deeply, dutifulness, contentment, compassion for others, selfless activity, and the ability to see their flaws despite a superior ability and thinking capacity than others, are practically nil.

The situation in former times was much better. There were many people in sattva, a greater number of people in rajas compared to today, and the remaining people were in tamas. The people in sattva had a higher position in society because they were highly skilled, deep thinkers, and concerned about the greater good. The people in tamas were limited to working on inanimate things. While this system seems oppressive to people in modern times, the fact is that each section in society had a job that would elevate them progressively.

Modern society dissolves these differences because the people in the higher classes have mostly disappeared. Those few people from the higher classes who are still left are compelled to struggle against the dominant majority which is principally situated in tamas.

Side Effects of False Equality

The person in tamas is ignorant and arrogant. People might call arrogance confidence, but it is not confidence, because confidence requires ability. If a person is somewhat capable, then they are in rajas, and they could say that they are confident of their abilities. But the person in tamas has very low abilities. And yet, because they are given freedom and equated to people with high abilities, they behave arrogantly. Of course, they know internally that they are not capable, but to uphold the false sense of equality they project confidence outwardly. Confidence, if based on ability, is not the worst thing; however, confidence without being backed by ability is the worst situation.

The intelligent person has thousands of questions, which makes their discussion complex. In the Vedic system, for example, hundreds of books were written to answer such questions. Those questions could be called “doubts”, which means that intelligent people have doubts, that lead to questions and then to answers that solve all the doubts. The arrogant person has no self-doubt. His ignorance hinders sophisticated thinking, and he feels that things are being unnecessarily complicated. As society becomes duller, it develops a distrust of intelligent people: The dull people claim that the intelligent people are deliberately complicating things to confuse everyone else.

As society becomes predominantly dull, intelligent people are progressively marginalized. The dull people cannot judge the intelligence of the intelligent person because they cannot ask the same types of questions, engage in complex topics, or grasp difficult nuances. The dull people now equate truth with popularity. They think: If most people assert the truth of something, then it must be true. This is because society has dissolved the differences between the different classes, and higher-class people are rapidly disappearing from society. That equalizes the opinion of all people and permits the dominant majority of ignorant people to assert their claims by popularity.

Impossible Predicaments of Knowledge

The job of intelligent people becomes harder if society declines. For example, Lord Krishna states in the Bhagavad-Gita, that the sincere disciple should approach a spiritual master, surrender to him, ask questions submissively, and render service to the spiritual master. All these things become hard, if not impossible, as society declines. Even if someone approaches a knowledgeable person, they are not prepared to surrender. Instead of submissively asking questions, they always challenge the knowledgeable person. And they never render service.

Since the knowledgeable person is constantly challenged, he might try to respond intelligently, using sophistication of argument, detailed analysis of the problems, followed by the discussion of the solution. The dull-headed people cannot handle this complexity. They think: All this complexity is unnecessary, and the person who is going through this elaborate method is trying to confuse and deceive us.

If, however, the intelligent person tries to simplify things, then he is compelled to forego sophisticated arguments, detailed analysis of problems, followed by a discussion of the solution. The simplification is that only the solution is presented without the other details. Now, the dull-headed person challenges that conclusion and says: There is so much evidence that refutes these simplistic claims.

This leads to impossible predicaments of teaching knowledge in which if someone goes through the details, then they are accused of superfluity. And if they bypass the details, then they are accused of oversimplification. Thereby, there is no viable path toward knowledge.

Dunning-Kruger Effect and Vedic Knowledge

The Dunning-Kruger effect is the description of this impossible predicament, and it results from the debates between people of radically different skill levels. Since the higher-skill people are disappearing, the lower-skill people find themselves in the majority. But in the debates between people of radically different skill levels, the knowledgeable person is always at a disadvantage because none of the arguments can be understood by the low-skill people, and yet, they feel empowered to hold onto their opinions because many other people do so.

Vedic knowledge is also a victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect because the dominant majority is ignorant, and yet due to the popularity of false ideas, highly confident of its positions. We might think that false ideas prevail because they are not being intelligently refuted or counterargued. However, the fact is that false ideas prevail because most people are too dull to understand the counterarguments, too lazy to try to understand complex topics, and too arrogant to accept that there might be something wrong with their adopted positions.

We cannot apply the traditional Vedic method of teaching where people set aside their pride to approach a knowledgeable person, inquire sincerely, and put in the effort to understand. We also cannot apply the modern method of argument and counterargument because the people are not able to comprehend, they are suspicious of any alternative that isn’t popular, and they are too lazy to endeavor.

Escape from the Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect accepts these problems. Their solution is that a person endeavors themselves. If they endeavor, then they will realize the flaws in their thinking. Those flaws will then push a person into a valley of despair. But if they continue endeavoring, then there is knowledge. In Vaishnava philosophy, this is called laulyam or greed. If a person has a strong desire, then everything else (including knowledge) follows. Where there is a will, there is always a way. Therefore, ultimately, everything comes down to a person’s strong will.

This is where we must note the final aspect of tamas, namely, weakness or a lack of willpower. The arrogant person is not strong; he is weak. What often appears as laziness is actually the absence of willpower. Willpower can only be gained by austerity. It requires some willpower to perform austerity, and when austerity is performed, then the willpower grows. Therefore, those with some willpower will be seen endeavoring, which then increases their willpower, which then increases the endeavor, and this becomes a self-reinforcing cycle.

The promise of the Vedic system is that you can find the truth. By that truth, you will obtain happiness. However, the journey to that truth and happiness passes through a phase of hardship. If we don’t have the willpower for that hardship, then the result is not attained.