If you’ve ever watched The Apprentice then you’ll know the peculiar enjoyment of seeing the biggest narcissist blowhards telling everyone how brilliant they are and then failing to achieve anything. They are entertainingly awful failures. Then they get fired. Unfortunately in real life instead of getting fired, some of the biggest egos with the smallest real achievements occasionally manage to get to the top, and that’s a bit of a puzzle. Just before the coronavirus lockdown I was asked to give a talk about the state of British politics to a business conference. Someone in the audience wanted to know how it can be that politicians “fail upwards”. How did Chris Grayling manage to have a succession of British government jobs? Then a senior investment manager said if he made promises and told stories to investors which proved to be nonsense, he’d be fired. So how did Boris Johnson and Donald Trump end up in Number Ten or the White House? The audience cited President Trump’s non-existent Wall paid for by Mexico, Boris Johnson’s “fantastic deals” after Brexit and his costly unbuilt Garden Bridge, and even Trump’s boast about the huge crowds at his Inauguration. Everyone with a TV could see it was rubbish. So how did these leaders survive? Have they no shame?
Those questions came back again this week with several jarring examples. Newspaper reports announced that Boris Johnson was planning to take charge of the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis. Opposition MPs and half the country wondered if the alleged Prime Minister is suddenly taking charge, who has been in charge up to now? Mr Bean? On Brexit there were reports that Boris Johnson considered the withdrawal agreement – the one he recommended to parliament and told the country was “oven ready” – was now suddenly “unfair.” Had he just noticed? Hadn’t he read the agreement that he had, well, agreed? And what happened to Britain “holding all the cards?”
Then came the most bizarre intervention of all. After the UK’s Black Lives Matter protests, the prime minister told us of his successes in race relations. This was – unless there are two Boris Johnsons – the same Boris Johnson who cared so much about racial harmony he described Africans as “piccaninies” with “watermelon smiles” and wrote that niqab-wearing Moslem women reminded him of letter boxes. The same Boris Johnson who was in government when we heard about the Windrush scandal – although perhaps “Windrush” is his nickname for the way he messes up his hair before appearing on television. How on earth can Boris Johnson boast of his achievements on race relations?
Perhaps the answer comes from a member of the audience at the business conference I attended. Someone shouted out: “Trump and Johnson – the Dunning-Kruger effect.” I had no idea what he was talking about. The audience member explained that he was a psychologist working with businesses to try to understand why super-confident business leaders sometimes made really bad decisions. Dunning and Kruger are two American social psychologists. Back in 1999 they tested US students in grammar and logic, and compared the test results with how well the students thought they had done. They found that the worst students who scored lowest on the tests vastly overestimated their scores and thought they performed brilliantly. Students with the best results typically underestimated their performance. Dunning and Kruger concluded that just like The Apprentice, and just like some politicians, the most arrogant bulls****ers in life are hopeless at actually getting anything done successfully. Boastful self-confidence, they concluded, is often coupled with disastrously low competence.
Technically the Dunning-Kruger effect is “a cognitive bias in which individuals are prone to assess their cognitive ability as greater than it truly is.” It involves “the inability of people to recognise their lack of knowledge or ability” and they “lack the ability to recognise their own mistakes and errors, making them exceptionally confident and biased self-evaluators.” Maybe Dunning-Kruger can help us explain why politics and government on both sides of the Atlantic has indeed become the worst reality TV show imaginable, from President Trump suggesting maybe disinfectant injections could defeat coronavirus, to the prime minister planning one day to “take charge” on coronavirus. Maybe Dunning-Kruger in this case is really “Johnson-Trump syndrome”. The symptoms are clear – a boastful politician is unable to remember what he said yesterday; what he says today bears no relation to what he will say tomorrow; and nothing he says on any day bears any relation to the reality of the problems we face. Sadly Johnson-Trump syndrome is incurable, except perhaps at election time. And even worse, the leaders who spread it are not the ones who most suffer from it. Unfortunately it infects all of us.
Gavin Esler is a writer and broadcaster and author most recently of Brexit Without The Bullshit