I recently had the pleasure of watching David Tennant’s performance of Hamlet. What I found so absolutely brilliant about his portrayal was how he focused on the bard’s illustration of the insecurities we all have when we make important and world altering decisions. The inaction that Hamlet is often criticized or is sympathetically explained as a struggle to make sure he is absolutely justified in the killing of his uncle and king. After all, if you were to meet a ghost who ordered you to regicide, would you rush headlong into the act, or would you check to make sure the apparition wasn’t a trick or a delusion? In contrast to this is the character of Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain to the king and father of both Hamlet’s friend and love interest. Despite his famous speech of advice to his son, he is generally regarded as the man within the play who is always wrong. Within the narrative of the play, when asked of Hamlet’s madness, he decides very early on the theory that Hamlet has been driven mad by his spurned affections for Ophelia. Desperate to prove his theory, he obsessively searches out and latches onto any clue that supports it, and his quest to do so eventually leads to his accidental killing. As I reflect on these two characters, patterns do emerge in how the ways they behave and make decisions determine the success of their actions, patterns that have actually been seen within research on success, failure, and decision-making.
The Dunning-Kruger effect was formulated in an investigation into incompetence. David Dunning, Justin Kruger, et al, sought to answer the question of why people make poor decisions or come to seemingly erroneous conclusions. According to their theory, people prone to failure and bad decisions have similar tendencies in their assessment of their skills, such as: overestimating their skills, failure to recognize skills in others, failure to recognize the limits to their skills, and the tendency to only admit a past lack of skill if they have be trained to improve it. In discussing the more experiential aspect of the Dunning-Kruger effect, what’s been illuminated is that there is a gross overestimation of skill, and a refusal to seek out feedback for improvement. Successful people, in contrast, actually tend to underestimate their abilities, and so their tendencies are to seek out feedback and development.
Groupthink is a phenomenon first formulated as people sought to find the cause of certain policy disasters. Specifically, people wanted to find out why groups of experts would make disastrous decisions, even when there were warnings reasons to doubt the decisions. Groupthink was found to be a condition where group cohesiveness leads to the active or passive suppression of individual thinking, problem solving and ideas. Groups that tend towards groupthink are prone to develop and push consensus thinking, and doubt or dissent is repressed either through self censorship, or through pressure from other group members. Groups prone to groupthink have common characteristics. They believe their group is unquestioningly right, moral and invulnerable They tend to characterize those not in their group as stupid, evil, we, biased, etc. If someone opposes their decisions, they label non-conformity with the group as disloyalty. They tend to pressure towards self-censorship of dissenting views and see the creation of “mind-guards” who actively shield the group from contrary views or information though intimidation or faulty rationalization. As a result, groups prone to groupthink tend to overestimate their decision-making abilities and discourage feedback and information that is contrary to their beliefs.
The tendencies of people who make poor decisions, either on a personal or group level, do show some similar patterns, specifically an overestimation of the rightness, morality or competence, and a refusal to consider dissenting information along side the evidence or feedback. Polonius, for instance, was a man who saw himself as wiser than others, constantly proffering advice, and became fixated on Hamlet’s madness as being caused by his love for Ophelia, ignoring Hamlet’s constant statements of being upset over his father’s death and his mother’s rapid remarriage, despite the second alternative actually being offered by Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet, conversely, never fully accepted the theory that Claudius killed his father, and constantly questioned his abilities and motives, until he found the evidence during the performance of “The Mousetrap.” Now the origin of these problems is not the often blamed under the label of stupidity, as even the most intelligent can make these mistakes. Rather these patterns are both highly understandable, and highly human. Contrary to common belief, human intelligence is not strictly logical or rule based, but has a strong emotional component. This is not a weakness of human thinking, because rules are not really acts of intelligence, but are more like decisional shortcuts that work under very specific circumstance. Intelligence is more about adapting and or dismissing rules than obeying them. Emotions are an important part of this process, because there are often times where people have to operate in conditions where variables are not clearly known, and so the logic to be employed is not clear as well. Emotional information adds weight that aids when pure logic is not possible. In fact, as found in research on people with orbitofrontal damage to their brains, if a person’s ability to process emotions is disrupted, they also lose decision making ability. However, the problem that comes into play is that when the emotions one experiences are a response to a perceived threat, the subsequent emotions of anger or fear, if strong enough, can actually suppress reasoning. This response evolved as a survival skill, and is hard wired into the structure of the brain. Since the time it takes to determine a course of action through a complex reasoning heuristic could result in harm or death when facing an attacking tiger, there is an evolutionary advantage to the amygdala shutting down the higher brain functions to quickly get you to fight, flee, or freeze. Now the threats that can trigger this can either be physical or psychological, aimed at either the body or the mind. When said tiger attacks you physically, you either attack back, runaway, or play possum and hope it mistakes you for dead so you can run away when its distracted. When the threat is psychological, you either attack the idea without considering it, ignore or dismiss it to make it go away, or give into it so it doesn’t hurt you more. In that entire process, however, you don’t actually apply any rational thought process to evaluate it. In the case of the Dunning-Kruger effect or groupthink, the individual or group identity is built around the premise that they have a superior competence when making the decisions they do. Contrary feedback or opinion attacks that concept, attacks their identity and so such opinion or feed back is never sought out, and when offered, gets ignored, dismissed, or attacked.
In the case of poor Polonius, we are not given enough information on his background to judge why it was safer for him to fixate on Hamlet’s love for Ophelia. It has been suggested in some interpretations that he was complicit in the original regicide, and so focusing attention away from that murder may have allowed him to avoid any guilt over it. It may be he had suspicions of Claudius’ guilt, which threatened an existential crisis between his suspicion and his loyalty to Claudius, and so the death of Hamlets father, and quick remarriage of his mother may have been similarly ignored. Or, it may just be that once he decided on a cause, his self-perceived identity as a purveyor of wisdom was threatened by any other theory that could be put into play. At any rate, his insistence resulted in a maddening guilt being placed upon his poor daughter, as well as the actions that lead him to spy on Hamlet’s mother, and his accidental death. Had he, as suggested in tips for the remediation of groupthink and the Dunning-Kruger effect, sought out feedback, sought out dissent, sought out contrary views, sought out alternatives, and admitted his own limitations as Hamlet did in his constant doubt and questioning, he may have found the truth that Hamlet was not actually mad, but motivated to seek justice for his father’s murder. But then, the play would have had a completely different ending.