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Russia, Putin, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area. This tends to occur because a lack of self-awareness prevents them from accurately assessing their own skills.

                        -- Psychology Today


If you’re in the habit, as I am, of listening to Keith Olbermann’s daily Countdown podcast, you know of his “Worst Persons in the World” segment, and how he refers to those persons as “Dunning-Kruger effect specimens,” thereby raising the profile of a previously obscure, but compelling, phenomenon.

We’ve all seen this ‘effect’ in action. We all know people with an inflated sense of their own talents. Perhaps we’ve even seen it in ourselves, on occasion, when we fall short in a “specific area” and cover our ignorance with bravado, assuming we’ll get away with it.

But that’s eccentric, as opposed to pathological. Only a rare few specimens would brazen their way into, say, an operating room where bone-saw skills are required — which is not, in the annals of this effect, unheard of.

But the rarest of the rare is that specimen who effectively owns one of the biggest countries in the world, and thinks he knows how to manage it.

Now, as we approach the bloody anniversary of his insanely stupid war, it’s clear that Vladimir Putin is the poster boy for the Dunning-Kruger effect. And that his particular pathology has trickled down through the entirety of Russian society.

Seen through this lens, one can’t help but think that Russia is now suffused with — and lost to — a Dunning-Kruger-type grandiosity.

The invasion of Ukraine couldn’t be a better demonstration. The Russian powers-that-be had been so conditioned to expect Ukraine to surrender in the first week, that there was no plan for a second week. Incapable of “accurately assessing their own skills,” they assumed Ukraine would welcome them as liberators, giving little thought to other possible outcomes.

Now those other outcomes have proven catastrophic, certainly for Ukraine, but also, in a much different way, for Russia. One could even argue that it’s Russia sustaining the deeper wounds, as its youth gets devoured by a ravenous but incompetent war machine, and as its society gets remade as a walking prison, a total lockdown of the intellect and spirit.

It's clear that much of the Russian population does not engage in independent thought. The word ‘freedom’ does not put a lump in Russian throats. The ladder of success is climbed by sucking up, punching down, and watching one's back. Initiative is actively discouraged, and talent is a clear liability, punished accordingly.

It’s the totalitarian model, through and through, right out of Orwell. Everyone conforms. Everyone believes the fiction of Russian exceptionalism. Everyone buys whatever the propagandists on TV sell them that day.

This is the perfect recipe for poor results, especially if the goal is, say, to invade and subjugate a neighboring country.

One of a great many downsides to this model is that Russian soldiers have little ability to create or improvise. They wait for orders, and if those orders aren’t forthcoming, they’re lost. Of course, the people issuing those orders — or not issuing, or miscommunicating, or undermining them — are equally lost.

And by ‘lost,’ what we mean is that they’re all easy prey for a Ukrainian army that’s better equipped, better led, far more disciplined, far more motivated, and deeply devoted to killing any oblivious dupe who trespasses on their land.

These lost souls extend up the chain of command, all the way up to Putin, whose delusions of Russian grandeur have led to an estimated 200,000 of his own people dead. At this rate, he could out-kill Covid, and in half the time.

And there’s no way out. As long as Putin is allowed to maintain these delusions, Russia’s only option is to keep throwing outdated artillery and expendable humans at the problem.

This is a Russian tradition. From the tsars to the Soviets to Putin, Russia has repeatedly undertaken grand military adventures that are well beyond its capacities, resulting in a line of abject failures stretching back more than a century.

The strategy is always the same: waves of human cannon fodder, left dead in the field. Just as they’re doing now in Ukraine.

In 1905, Tsar Nicholas II — himself a Dunning-Kruger archetype — sent his navy 18,000 miles, around the Cape of Good Hope and up to Japan, just to teach those subhuman Asiatics a lesson in Russian power. The Japanese trapped and destroyed his entire fleet in two days.

In 1917, the Russian army, also under Nicholas, performed so abysmally, leaving literally millions dead, that the whole nation convulsed in spasms of chaotic violence. The resulting Revolution brutally upended the existing social order, and replaced it with a reign of terror that has continued, with few pauses, to this day.

In World War II, Stalin stuck closely to the cannon fodder strategy, and had an endless supply of human sacrifices to draw on. And it worked, sort of. The German invaders couldn’t kill Russians fast enough to keep up with that supply, and they ultimately ran out of food, gasoline, and ammunition. This is what passes for victory in Russia, and it’s been celebrated and mythologized ever since.

Russia’s repeated military failures — as well as its chronic economic problems — are all failures of authoritarianism, and of the social rot that infects a population now being actively re-conditioned to live full-time in fear.

There is no democratic tradition in Russia, so there’s never been a credible check on absolute power. The country was always isolated, always a world unto itself, and it was virtually untouched by the social and intellectual ferment that swept Europe with the Renaissance and Reformation.

Consequently, the Russian people are participants — willing or not — in a dehumanizing system that combines underachievement with cruelty, and that rewards a zombie-like absence of civic self-awareness.

And now, with the arrogance of a true Dunning-Kruger effect specimen, Russia seeks to spread that system to the rest of the world. Which would be an appalling prospect, if they actually possessed the skills to do so.

Fortunately, they don’t have those skills. Unfortunately, they think they do.



  1. Having watched Frontline's piece on Putin the other day, I came away with a clear picture of a man at war with the United States. His actions to expand the Russian empire seem to be a reaction to U.S. hegemony and nothing more. The Soviet Union was considered to be a super power. Putin wants that moniker back and it doesn't seem like he cares how many of his people need to die to get it. It's just one man's approach to "make Russia great again." We know how that strategy worked out here -- disruption and chaos.

  2. One of the best. Loved the "Liberators" comment. Reminded me of Cheney in the run-up to our last idiot war.

  3. Thanks for the historical overview!

  4. Putin doesn't know what he doesn't know. He is, as a result, the face of evil in the world. He must be blotted out.


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