Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Moral Dunning-Kruger Effect?

In a famous series of experiments Justin Kruger and David Dunning found that people who scored in the lowest quartile of skill in grammar, logic, and (yes, they tried to measure this) humor tended to substantially overestimate their abilities, rating themselves as a bit above average in these skills. In contrast, people in the top half of ability had more accurate estimations (even tending to underestimate a bit). The average participant in each quartile rated themselves as above average, and the correlation between self-rated skill and measured skill was small.

For example, here's Kruger and Dunning's chart for logic ability and logic scores:

(Kruger & Dunning 1999, p. 1129).

Kruger and Dunning's explanation is that poor skill at (say) logical reasoning not only impairs one's performance at logical reasoning tasks but also impairs one's ability to evaluate one's own performance at logical reasoning tasks. You need to know that affirming the consequent is a logical error in order to realize that you've just committed a logical error in affirming the consequent. Otherwise, you're likely to think, "P implies Q, and Q is true, so P must be true. Right! Hey, I'm doing great!"

Although popular presentations of the Kruger-Dunning effect tend to generalize it to all skill domains, it seems unlikely that it does generalize universally. In domains where evaluating one's success doesn't depend on the skill in question, and instead depends on simpler forms of observation and feedback, one might expect more realistic self-evaluations by novices. (I haven't noticed a clear, systematic discussion of cases where Dunning-Kruger doesn't apply, though Kahneman & Klein 2009 is related; tips welcome.) For example: footraces. I'd wager that people who are slow runners don't tend to think that they are above average in running speed. They might not have perfect expectations; they might show some self-serving optimistic bias (Taylor & Brown 1988), but we probably won't see the almost flat line characteristic of Kruger-Dunning. You don't have to be a fast runner to evaluate your running speed. You just need to notice that others tend to run faster than you. It's not like logic where skill at the task and skill at self-evaluation are closely related.

So... what about ethics? Ought we to expect a moral Dunning-Kruger Effect?

My guess is: yes. Evaluating one's own ethical or unethical behavior is a skill that itself depends on one's ethical abilities. The least ethical people are typically also the least capable of recognizing what counts as an ethical violation and how serious the violation is -- especially, perhaps, when thinking about their own behavior. I don't want to over-commit on this point. Certainly there are exceptions. But as a general trend, this strikes me as plausible.

Consider sexism. The most sexist people tend to be the people least capable of understanding what constitutes sexist behavior and what makes sexist behavior unethical. They will tend either to regard themselves as not sexist or to regard themselves only as "sexist" in a non-pejorative sense. ("Yeah, so what, I'm a 'sexist'. I think men and women are different. If you don't, you're a fool.") Similarly, the most habitual liars might not see anything bad in lying or just assume that everyone else who isn't just a clueless sucker also lies when convenient.

It probably doesn't make sense to think that overall morality can be accurately captured in a single unidimensional scale -- just like it probably doesn't make sense to think that there's one correct unidimensional scale for skill at baseball or for skill as a philosopher or for being a good parent. And yet, clearly some baseball players, philosophers, and parents are better than others. There are great, good, mediocre, and crummy versions of each. I think it's okay as a first approximation to think that there are more and less ethical people overall. And if so, we can at least imagine a rough scale.

With that important caveat, then, consider the following possible relationships between one's overall moral character and one's opinion about one's overall moral character:

Dunning-Kruger (more self-enhancement for lower moral character):

[Note: Sorry for the cruddy-looking images. They look fine in Excel. I should figure this out.]

Uniform self-enhancement (everyone tends to think they're a bit better than they are):

U-shaped curve (even more self-enhancement for the below average):

Inverse U (realistically low self-image for the worst, self-enhancement in the middle, and self-underestimation for the best):

I don't think we really know which of these models is closest to the truth.


D said...

Can you check your example of what the doofus thinks as he is affirming the consequent? I think he's got it right, and I find that very embarrassing for myself.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for that catch, D! I'm the one who should be embarrassed. I've corrected it now.

Daniel said...

My knee-jerk reaction to this post is that it's got it all wrong about ethical evaluation. That is, ethical competence just cannot be gauged in this way. At least, this is what I want to say on behalf of some of the prominent ethical theories out there.

For example, you say:

The least ethical people are typically also the least capable of recognizing what counts as an ethical violation and how serious the violation is -- especially, perhaps, when thinking about their own behavior.

This seems false, and false in a uniquely ethical way, because ignorance is often taken as an excuse. The moral monster is not the agent who commits a wrong that he thought was in fact a right. Rather, the moral monster is the agent who commits a wrong knowing full well it was wrong. (And no, I'm not talking about akrasia, though that may be relevant in some way too.) I think your examples of the sexist who plays off their sexism is not actually a case of genuine ignorance, but a case of immoral downplaying or negligence. (He ought to know, even if he doesn't. Or he does know "deep down.") If it were a case of genuine ignorance, then I would feel regret that our society has failed that person in their education, upbringing, etc., but I wouldn't have the same sort of indignant response toward them that I (in fact) do.

Another important, though related, problem is this: how do we go about conducting the actual ranking of agents? If we're working on the basis of a theory that places moral worth on some sort of externally observable act, then, sure, there's not much of an issue. But if we think that intention plays any significant role in the story, then a lot of questions arise. For example, how can we discern the intentions of different agents when they might have radically different psychological makeups? Can we trust the self-reporting on intentions of agents who may or may not be unethical and unafraid to lie? (We can't know beforehand, since discerning just this is the task at hand, after all.) Can an experiment really be created that would show that an agent (i) had bad intentions but (ii) wasn't aware they were bad? Is that not a contradiction in some sense (per my thought above)?

In case the foregoing wasn't entirely clear, my main point is this: it might be a necessary condition on doing wrong that the agent knows she is doing wrong (both in terms of [i] the awareness of what counts as a given duty and [ii] the awareness that she is actively disregarding or even hindering the actions required to discharge that duty). This would create some serious difficulties for anyone who wanted to evaluate those agents with a view toward observing the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Arnold said...

Is genetic R&D moving us beyond ethical graphs...
...that at some point we will create something, it (the thing created) knowing what it is and knowing who it is...

That 'who is knowledge' then could become a question for ethics...
...but, impossible for measurement and graphic display...

At what point will this field of genetics affect who-what we are...
...Graphs can make things easier to understand but not sure-in the field of ethics...
...Wiki 'Devolution (biology)' for even more complexity...

Callan S. said...

How do they know 'full well' they are doing 'wrong', Daniel? Are they rolling dice then scooping them up before anyone else can see the result? That clear cut?

Nick Alonso said...

Cool post!

You might be interested in checking out this study done by Aharoni et al. (2012)

Can Psychopathic Offenders Discern Moral Wrongs? A New
Look at the Moral/Conventional Distinction

This study found some evidence that, contrary to traditional opinion, psychopathic criminals are actually quite good at understanding the distinction between moral and conventional transgressions. This along with the fact that psychopaths are about as intelligent as the rest of us provides some reason to think that they would actually have a somewhat accurate opinion of their poor moral character.

Also, on the other end of the spectrum, I would guess that those people who are really good think themselves to have mediocre moral character. This is at least my experience with people who I judge to be very good. It, in my opinion, is part of what makes them such good people.

So the curve I imagine might look somewhat different that the Dunning-Kruger curve.

howard b said...

Hi Eric:

A sweeping statement about the Dunning-Kruger effect with possible implications.

All of us are masters in some way of our own world. We feel we know what is going on because it is our world. You can call this a naive or Aristotelian realism. It used to be that the whole world was reducible to common sense- especially in moral and human matters it's not unusual for people to read between the lines and just know what is going on.
So the problem is one of an outdated metaphysics where everything is simple enough for common sense to grasp it, which needs to be replaced by a more sophisticated epistemology which for some would require a leap of faith.
So every field in which common sense is superseded would suffer the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Just a theory, but what do I know?
Plus we are pushed by the world to make decisions in ignorance

Anonymous said...

And, as every bookmaker knows, bullish over-confident individuals who beleive that they are good at assigning probabilities to outcomes, are invariably incapable of doing so.