What is Your Ratio?

By Robert Bernstein   |   June 3, 2021

“It is not how smart you are that matters. What matters is the ratio of how smart you are to how smart you think you are.” This is my very own Ratio Theory I have expounded for decades.

Most of my career was spent in manufacturing. I observed that some very smart production workers did not do very reliable work. One of the best we ever had had intellectual challenges, but the work held her attention and she gave it her best effort.

On a grander scale, some of the biggest tragedies in my lifetime involved the so-called “best and brightest” dreaming up wars that were seen as noble and winnable. In fact, they were neither. The Nobel Peace Prize became an absurdity in my view when it was awarded to Henry Kissinger.

Henry Kissinger is a perfect example of someone who has a very bad ratio. He is certainly a smart guy, but not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. And not nearly as smart as needed to put hundreds of thousands of lives on the line. He was responsible for making President Johnson’s fiasco in Vietnam into a grand horror. He took that horror to a country that had been considered the place most like the Garden of Eden: Cambodia. He went on to ask President Carter to invite the Shah of Iran into the U.S., which led to the taking of U.S. hostages.

William Butler Yeats wrote in a 1920 poem “The Second Coming” these relevant words: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Others have written variations, including Charles Bukowski: “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”

Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and economist. He showed that markets are based on imperfect information and involve a range of human ignorance and bias. He has said that if he had a magic wand to change one aspect of human character it would be to eliminate “overconfidence.”

There is a name for the overconfidence of those who are less intelligent: The Dunning-Kruger Effect. David Dunning and Justin Kruger published a paper in 1999 whose title says it all: “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.”

However, this research has been challenged by Gilles Gignac and Marcin Zajenkowskib in a 2020 paper that claims the Effect is “mostly a statistical artifact.” I was happy to learn this as it affirms my Ratio Theory: One can be very intelligent and have a terrible ratio. And one can be lacking in intelligence and yet be very aware of one’s limitations. The latter is what is called “metacognition.”

Socrates said, “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” This represents a core aspect of having a good ratio.

My father was a brilliant scientist, but in his later years he suffered from dementia. I was at the hospital when he was asked what year it was, and he did not know. I later asked him if it bothered him that he did not know what year it was. His reply: “I try not to let things like that bother me.” Which was good for him. But it became infuriating for those who had to deal with him. He insisted there was nothing wrong with his mind or his memory. It was everyone else who had changed.

I would argue that my Ratio Theory goes beyond intelligence. A person who has less than movie star looks can still be very attractive if they have an accurate view of their appearance.

A January 2018 AAA report said that 80% of men think they are better than average drivers. Some of them are clearly mistaken and may have a very bad ratio! This “illusory superiority” bias is also called the “Lake Wobegon Effect” where all children are above average!

Back to my manufacturing example. We outsourced some of my engineering designs to a company that delivered devices with almost no mistakes. How? They had the production workers check each other’s work. In science we would call this “peer review.” Perhaps before we go off to another war there should be some kind of scientific peer review?

I will conclude by saying that some people tragically have a bad ratio in the other direction. I have known people who are brilliant and creative who never have the confidence to fulfill their potential. Let us all strive for a perfect ratio of one by getting to know both our limitations and our opportunities.


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