“I don’t know”: Intellectual Humility and power imbalance when Dunning Kruger meets the Prisoner’s Dilemma

I am drawn to clickbait articles about self-improvement. Especially ones about being smart (their appeal is a suitable reminder to myself that I’m not, in case my head swells too much). This morning I was reading one such. It had all the classics of a genre which tends to be populated by smart-ish people trying to figure out the best way of presenting when talking about smartness that makes them appear more than smart-ish.

That somewhat strained sentence sets the scene really well. Let’s set aside the utter opaqueness of “smart” as a concept. Even if you could figure that out (the article in question doesn’t come close, at times inching towards fetching the callipers), how do you, as the article goes, spot smart people? The assumption (again, hmm) is that you would want to so you can put them in positions where they can use their smarts to do cool stuff for your organization.

Answer number one has been predictable for at least the two and a half thousand years since Socrates said he was clever because he knew he knew nothing. Smart people aren’t afraid to say “I don’t know.”

And that is the epitome of an answer a sort-of-but-not-very-smart person would give. Because, yes, Dunning Kruger. And, yes, it’s smart to admit when you don’t know something because then you get to learn it either by delving into research or making room for and learning from someone who does.

But that is not a situation that arises in life. And a really smart person would know that. They would know that someone hiring is also likely to fall foul of Dunning Kruger and think they’re smarter than they are. And that will create biases. But which biases? Some not so smart but think they are people will love to discover a smart person and will have researched articles like the above. In which case the smart person (leaving aside how smart it is to want a promotion from such a manager – let’s just assume it’s a really juicy prospect) will admit what they don’t know. But not for the reason the article says makes them smart – instead because they’ve read the manager.

Other managers will straight-up believe those who say they’re smart. They tend to be surrounded by a lot of people who aren’t smart. But the really smart person knows this and overrides their intellectual humility to shout loudest about their smarts.

But what if the manager really is smart too. That’s where the level of guess and second guess gets prisoner’s dilemma level. Ad at no point can either party in a discussion between two of these super-smarts break out of the meta-analysis and go “it’s OK, you can stop guessing, I just want to know if you’re REALLY smart”. Because that’s exactly what a smart-ish person would say.

All of which is interesting, but serves to illustrate an important point. Stope trying to second-guess daft questions about “smartness”. Start working out what it is you actually want from this person you’re thinking of hiring.

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