When Alexander Pope said that “a little learning is a dangerous thing” he neglected to mention that even a great deal of learning can be fatal if it leads to unwarranted assumptions of competence. Timothy Treadwell, a naturalist who spent thirteen years living among and observing wild grizzlies, may have known and understood bears better than anyone in the world. He no doubt understood that, though they can be aggressive at times, grizzlies will almost never kill a human. In fact, in 2003 the only people to be killed by grizzly bears were Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard, his girlfriend.

The tragic deaths of Treadwell and Huguenard give a double lesson. Class IV incompetence kills two kinds of people: the people who think they know something that isn’t really true, and the people who believe them. In the 85-year history of the national park where the couple died, no human had ever been killed by a grizzly; it took a self-designated expert and his trusting partner to break that streak.

Treadwell, who knew more than anyone else about living among grizzlies, was fatally incompetent – far more incompetent than an average person – at not-dying among grizzlies. In this case, as in most cases of Class IV tragedy, a person’s actual competence (their true ability in a certain field, which we shall henceforth refer to as ‘AC’) is rarely the cause of the trouble. However much or little one actually knows, it is perceived competence (PEC), and its distance from AC, that sends things to hell in a handbasket. Modern society operates smoothly on the presumption that most people aren’t competent to practice law or fix a car – we channel matters requiring such specialist attention to the relevant minority of competent practitioners. Thus we are able to maximize the operational competence (OPCOM) that is brought to bear on a situation.

What is OPCOM, and how is it distinct from AC? As has been noted, a gap between AC and PEC has an inevitably negative effect on performance, and this is true even in instances where AC is relatively high. The value of OPCOM can be defined as:

Operational Competence = Actual Competence – a Perception-Gap Handicap

Translation: The quality of the result of a person’s effort in any given area is equal to that person’s full potential, minus the damage caused by an inability to accurately assess that potential. This perception-based handicap can be the result of overrating or underrating actual competence as can be seen in every full-length animated Disney feature between 1991 and 1996:

  • 1991 – Beauty and the Beast – The Beast thinks no woman could love him; Garcon thinks no woman could resist him.
  • 1992 – Aladdin – Aladdin is a ‘diamond in the rough’, a lowly street-rat whose true self is that of a prince; Jafar, who fancies himself an infinitely cunning puppet-master, ends up getting tricked.
  • 1994 – The Lion King – Simba must rediscover his kingly nature after slumming it as an insectivore; Scar thinks himself to be truly deserving of Lion King-ship, but his reign is marred by drought and hyenas.
  • 1996 – The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Quasimodo, the embodiment of goodness, believes himself to be one of God’s mistakes; Frollo, the embodiment of evil, believes his will and God’s to be one and the same.

 

It should be noted that all the abovementioned characters are classic toxicons. For obvious dramatic reasons, the self-underrater is generally the sympathetic hero while the self-overrater is generally the sneering, doomed villain, but both have falsely bought in to an erroneous narrative borne of ignorance. 1991-1996 was the Era of Toxicon-Driven Narratives at Disney. Interestingly, in this same time period Pixar released Toy Story, in which one of the heroes (the inimitable Buzz Lightyear) actually starts off as a self-overrater. True to form, he must be reduced to underrater status (I can’t help anyone) before he can finally ‘reach his full potential’.

Let us take our algebra-of-competence a step further and identify the components of the perception-based handicap:

  • Magnitude of gap between perceived and actual competence – The value of one’s error in assessing one’s competence.
  • Expected performance – The more competent one thinks one is, the bigger the impact of errors in perception will be.

 

That a larger degree of error in assessing actual competence would result in a larger handicap is self-evident. Regarding the ‘expected performance’ factor, this acknowledges that the more competent a person believes themselves to be, the greater confidence they will have in their conclusions, and consequently the greater impact their handicap will have. So, for example, an equivalent gap between perceived and actual competence in the field of medicine will have less significance in someone who thinks they know how to treat a hangover than in someone who thinks they know how to perform an appendectomy.

Advertisements