Doubt Yourself Constantly


Here’s a suggestion to begin the New Year: Doubt Yourself Constantly. (I’m going to be writing this in English because, though this post relates directly to Greek society in general and Greek martial artists in particular, there are aspects that are pertinent to global society at large in our Internet Age.)

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a pattern of deviation in judgment whereby unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. Individuals create their own “subjective social reality” based on their perception of events and data (input). This bias is attributed to the inability of the unskilled to recognize their lack of relevant aptitude. Conversely, highly skilled individuals tend to underestimate their relative competence, erroneously assuming that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.

The phenomenon was first tested in a series of experiments published in 1999 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the Department of Psychology, Cornell University. As their article concluded, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.” Although the Dunning–Kruger effect was formulated fifteen years ago, Dunning and Kruger noted that similar observations were made by philosophers and scientists throughout history, including Confucius (“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance”), Socrates (“I know that I know nothing”), Bertrand Russell (“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision”), and Charles Darwin (“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”).

It is also an error to assume that such behavior follows the (relaxed) outlines of a normal distribution (a bell curve). In probability theory, the normal (or Gaussian) distribution is a function that tells the probability that any real observation will fall between any two real limits or real numbers, as the curve approaches zero on either side. Normal distributions are extremely important in statistics and are often used in the natural and social sciences for real-valued random variables whose distributions are not known. A bell curve assumes that 95% of the population is found within two standard deviations:

But with regard to actual skill levels, this is actually not the case. Research conducted in 2011 and 2012 by Ernest O’Boyle Jr and Herman Aguinis (633263 researchers, entertainers, politicians, and athletes in a total of 198 samples) found that performance in 94 percent of these groups did not follow a normal distribution. Rather the groups fall into what is called a “Power Law” distribution.

A “Power Law” distribution is also known as a “long tail.” It indicates that people are not “normally distributed” within society. In this statistical model, there are a small number of people who are “hyper high performers,” a broad swath of people who are “good performers” and a smaller number of people who are “low performers.” It essentially accounts for a much wider variation in performance among the sample, and it is typical in any activity where talent is required – painters, authors, scientists, and martial artists for example.

Power Law distribution has very different characteristics from the Bell Curve. In the Power Curve most people fall below the mean (slightly). Roughly 10-15% of the population are above the average (often far above the average), a large population are slightly below average, and a small group are far below average. So the concept of “average” becomes meaningless.

In fact the implication is that comparing to “average” isn’t very useful at all, because the small number of people who actually influence outcomes accommodate for a very high percentage of the total value.

In short, people in a society are for the most part followers, not leaders, and are happy being followers. But what is frightening as depicted by the above two graphs, is that the tendency towards Belief, contrary to the Dunning–Kruger effect, does indeed follow a bell curve distribution. People will first follow, purchase, value, cherish, etc, that which does not threaten their own sense of ego, but rather enhances it, regardless of truth, efficacy, or consequences. There is a biological imperative for this that we have retained from our time as monkeys. So while thought leaders are by definition a minority, the majority of the population will reject deviations from the principle trend outright, regardless of whether they are right or wrong. In catastrophic scenarios, this has been termed the lemming effect (unfair to lemmings). No socio-economic class, no human activity, is immune to this effect. A grant-seeking university scientist can be a lemming just as much as a fashion obsessed teen-age girl. The power to fit in with one’s social peers can be irresistible. To a human lemming, the logic behind an opinion doesn’t count as much as the popularity behind an opinion.

It is important for people to note that exceptional performers are not superhuman. The majority of us are subject to the effects of our limbic system, which reacts emotionally to the lack of understanding among the “pack”, including exceptional performers. A healthy reaction to social rejection among Power Law leaders is seclusionist tendencies, but things can rapidly turn worse (Van Gogh is a clear example). Emotional turmoil is often the result of not being comfortably placed within one standard deviation of the main body of the pack. Financial success, which can be produced by psychopathy if/when it arises, is often out of reach for hyper-high performers because they simply are not capable of understanding what the overwhelming majority of people want in the first place. While tragic in the case of art, in life and death scenarios, close combat for example, only right and wrong matter, not social drivers and mores. Popularity contests and social combat should have little to do with actual battle – and when they do, the effects are tragic.

In an interview about ten years back for a martial arts website, I was told I was considered “a snob, strange, eccentric”, primarily because I did not engage in social niceties. While I valued the opinions of my peers and superiors, I did not (and do not) consider many people who thought (think) they were (are) my peers to be my peers. Understandably, this brought about a great degree of rejection and anger, which to be honest, I didn’t mind; I knew Van Gogh had never sold a single painting in his life. I was more concerned with whether or not what I was painting was actually any good – whether I was tactically right or wrong. But I was surprised that martial artists, even famous teachers, were more willing to support people guilty of the murder of children or accessories to the murder of children, than simply admit they were wrong in the first place. At fifty-five, I have now matured enough to understand why this is the case – but I still condemn such decisions and will continue to express my contempt for the people who think otherwise.

As it turns out, over the decades, I have been proven right about many things in many cases where I took a contrary position to popular trends (I have also been wrong, and paid the price, but less frequently – the statistics are in my favor). In the case of survival, which is what martial arts and close combat should be all about, right and wrong should be the deciding factor, not monkey-pack status. When a leopard has pounced on a chimpanzee’s back, the ape is probably little concerned with his status in the pack. We are at that point in our development when our very survival is at stake. As intelligent animals, we should be concerned with the leopards circling around us, ready to dart into our midst and kill, not with Kimmie’s butt. So my advice for the New Year to you is this: forget about your ego; challenge yourself constantly. You are neither that important, nor that bright, nor that talented. What you should involve yourself with are the internal (primarily) and external enemies that threaten the survival of everything you care about. I will continue to be an @$$h0Λ€, but I want you to understand one thing: you can always rely on me to tell you the simple truth. I may not always be right – no man is perfect – but you should know that my own ego is irrelevant to me before what is right and what is wrong, and I always publicly admit it when I screw up.


3 Responses

  1. SK  •  January 15, 2015 @11:55 pm

    I do not usually comment or get involved, doing so is not in my system, but on this one you triggered my entropy.

    Since ignorance is indeed bliss and the overwhelming majority of the populace is out to lunch (given the current global and especially European sandbagging),
    I think the Darwinian approach may be soon inverted on its head and proven in reverse…in other words unless a prompt removal of craniums from posterior orifices takes place, globally at that, survival of the dumbest and unfittest will indeed become the new norm. Which in itself creates a dilemma for ego based assumptions.

    Ergo, regarding the “apotheosis” of the ego, of course this lesson is a repetitive one historically and globally/culturally, but when is it time to say:
    “F&% it, no more, I know I do know better”. It then means going against the directive, but given the status quo of stupidity overload, maybe it is this exception that defines the rule…

    Truth, on a personal level, the rant triggers me and it brings out the actual Socratic self, living up to my name, since I quite often and all in all honesty find my self in self-doubt and second guessing my motives and aspect ratios.
    My fall-back position usually lies in my moral directives, which I may falsely(pun intended) adhere to as a foundation. Full circle. Snake eating its tail.

    Survival may require us to be Egocentric and driven by it as a tool, but conversely needing to shed it, justified developmentally, sagaciously, morally/ethically or dare I say spiritually, or by whichever reasoning is deemed to be the apex????…and all in a world that is circling the shitter at a dizzying velocity.

    Dilemmas or waste of time, since it can all end in a split second of stupidity, luck malice, or ignorance.

  2. Anestis  •  January 30, 2015 @2:36 pm

    Μου κάνει εμτύπωση που δεν γίνεται αναφορά στην αρχή Παρέτο, ( στο κείμενο. Η αρχή λέει το εξής: “Το 80% των πωλήσεων μιας εταιρίας θα γίνεται απο το 20% του προσωπικού. ”
    Είναι μια ισορροπία που παρουσιάζεται και σε άλλους τομείς. Για την τέχνη που μιλάει το κείμενο ας πούμε, η αρχή θα μπορούσε να μετασχηματιστεί ως εξής: “το 20% των τραγουδιστών παράγουν το 80% των hits που ακούμε.”

    Δεν κομίζω γλαύκα εις Αθήνας, γιατί νομίζω ότι κάποια πράγματα εξηπακούονται. Δεν θεωρώ δηλαδή λογικό κάποιος να πιστεύει ότι μπορεί να ξεπεράσει τον Μπολτ στο 100άρι όση προπόνηση να κάνει και όσα αναβολικά και να πάρει. Συνήθως αυτές οι συζητήσεις για το πόσο καλός είναι κάποιος, γίνονται γύρω απο θέματα που δεν είναι εύκολα μετρήσιμα ή αποδείξιμα και εκεί υπεισέρχεται και το σφάλμα εκτίμησης είτε ως υπερεκτίμηση είτε ως υποτίμηση που αναφέρεται στο κείμενο.

    Οφείλουμε επίσης να κάνουμε και μια διάκριση ανάμεσα σε αυτούς που διακρίνονται για επιτέύγματα στο υλικό επίπεδο και σε αυτούς που διακρίνονται στο πνευματικό επίπεδο. Οι πρώτοι δεν παρουσιάζουν τις τάσεις μοναξιάς ενώ οι δεύτεροι είναι πολύ πιθανότερο να είναι ερημίτες. Εξ όσων γνωρίζω ο Τζόρνταν δεν υπήρξε ποτέ ερημίτης αλλά το αντίθετο και μάλιστα ήξερε και πως να προκαλεί ενθουσιασμό στο πλήθος.
    Για τον Βαν Γκονγκ, τον Νας και τον Αϊνστάιν πχ. το κείμενο έχει δίκιο αλλά αφορούν επιτεύγματα αποκλειστικά νοητικά.

  3. dervenis  •  January 31, 2015 @10:41 am

    Good point Anestis. And thank you Socratic self.

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