I recently read a series of articles in The New York Times entitled “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma.” The condition is so obscure even spell-check cannot handle anosognosia. The word describes an affliction characterized by the sufferer’s inability to recognize his or her own disability. An anosognosic who no longer had the use of an arm, for example, showed no awareness that the arm didn’t work and in some cases failed to acknowledge that the useless arm even belonged to him or her.
My fascination with these articles has something to do with a phenomenon I routinely observe in the course of my life and particularly in my work at City Hall. What I frequently see and hear are opinions based not only on a lack of information, but on a failure to acknowledge that more accurate information could exist. In other words, sometimes we are too incompetent to realize we’re incompetent and we aggravate the problems our ignorance creates by our refusal to accept our limitations.
We can’t, of course, spend our lives lamenting our lack of knowledge. The author of the Times series points out the dangers of too much introspection in the following passage:
“I have to admit my fondness for the Dunning-Kruger Effect (non-clinical anosognosia). But is it a metaphor for existence? For the human condition? That we’re all dumb and delusional? So dumb and delusional that we can never grasp that fact? It’s so profoundly depressing and disturbing. Even sad.”
It would be appropriate to end my comments now, before confirming my delusions by arguing against them. My reality, however, suggests we have to live with and make the best of our limitations or we would never get anything done. We may be “dumb and delusional,” but the operative question is, “So what?” We still have to eat, sleep, move about, and (I hope) be of some value to those around us. Our challenge is not to arrive at some perfect state of understanding where we know everything. I believe our obligation is to seek the best information we can and recognize that our conclusions have inherent weaknesses. Humility, in other words, should probably accompany all our actions, but should not serve as an excuse for having no opinion or doing nothing of significance.
A few days ago, I was hurrying to a meeting and pulled out in front of another vehicle because I thought I saw its turn signal indicate the driver was going to turn in front of me. The signal may have been on, but the car didn’t turn and I narrowly avoided a nasty accident. I wouldn’t be surprised if the driver of the other car had some choice words for me that I probably deserved. More than 40 years of driving has convinced me that all drivers make mistakes on occasion, and I have resolved to never say bad things or use expressive hand gestures to communicate my displeasure to someone who I think may have made a driving error. What’s the difference between his/her honest mistake and my own in some other setting?
Asserting our own superiority over someone else may bring some momentary satisfaction until you realize it is the ultimate delusion. We may have better information on a given subject at a given time, or we may even be right when someone else is wrong. It’s only a matter of time and circumstance until our roles will be reversed. I hope the next time I feel inclined to use an unflattering name to describe someone else, I can remember that the next moron I see could be in the mirror.