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Kevin J. O'Toole, the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is a former New Jersey State Senator. (Photo: Kevin J. O'Toole.)

The O’Toole Chronicles: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

By Kevin O'Toole, May 31 2022 12:01 am

The Dunning-Kruger effect – a cognitive bias whereby with limited knowledge or competence in a given intellectual or social domain greatly overestimate their own knowledge or competence in that domain relative objective criteria or to the performance of their peers or of people in general.
— Britannica

I was talking to a friend, Chris, who recently returned from a life changing experience in Utah and he was starting to talk to me about his changing preferred lifestyle.  He wanted to have a serious and potentially uncomfortable conversation with his wife. I wasn’t quite sure why he was asking me, but he said he trusted my counsel and wanted my advice. Gearing up for this sobering discussions, he suddenly asked me: “Do you know what the Dunning-Kruger (DK) effect is?” I was a little startled by this complete non-sequitur and I replied: “of course, not only do I know it, I lived it during my many years in Trenton.”

Explanation needed.

For 28 years in Trenton, 6 as a staffer and 22 as a Legislator, I sat through thousands of hearings as Legislators would rail for or against bills, budgets, or resolutions, and in truth, very few had an actual grasp of the subject matter. Let’s be mindful that the bills that Legislators sponsor are actually drafted by OLS and revised by partisan staff (and in some cases lobbyists – ask Adam Kaufman about the Energy Deregulation Process in 1999).  With rare exception, by the time a Legislator actually gets to the bill, the die is cast and the process moves forward.

In steps the DK effect. Inevitably, as the bill is poised to move forward at a committee hearing, the Legislators take questions from the informed public on sophisticated issues like senior health care, education lag, infrastructure development, debt financing and so on. This isn’t a criticism, but I can’t tell you how many times Legislators are the most uninformed in the room and no one has the nerve to politely tell them. Again, I’m not being critical of Legislators, they can’t know everything about everything, but that is what the system provides and that is what the public expects.

Make no mistake, I don’t excuse myself from the group of the least informed—I am right there in the thick of it with my former colleagues.

To avoid the Dunning-Kruger Effect I would suggest some changes take place.

When confronted with a problem, go to the individuals who have the most expertise or most experience. Regarding the more weighty issues, take some time before the hearing and bone up on the pros and cons. Speak to advocates on both sides and do some independent research. Trust your senior staff to properly vet the issue (this means actually reading their work product and spending quality time LISTENING to them).

Now you are more ready for the grand discussion of the day, but you need to be aware that despite the tutelage, you are still one of the least informed in the room. Next step is to allow the hearing to take place, stop pontificating and take time to listen to the stakeholders and those most involved and most impacted. And when decision time comes for the green or red light, go with the research and don’t let your limited knowledge be shown daylight, and for heaven’s sake, don’t show your DK.

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