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Those Who Know That They Don’t Know Might Just Know the Most

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

On April 15th 1995, in Pittsburgh, USA, word broke about two bank robberies that took place in broad daylight. And the gang that orchestrated the robberies wasn’t a gang at all; it was merely one man, McArthur Wheeler. So confident was the bank robber, on one of his escapades he strutted into the bank with no disguise and his face clearly visible, pointed a gun at a teller before being handed his prize, and strutted right back out again while looking up and smiling at the CCTV cameras. He thought he’d gotten away with the most literal form of daylight robbery.

Wheeler was arrested later that night. When he was shown the CCTV recording by police, he was aghast; “But I wore the juice,” he claimed. Wheeler had apparently thought that he had expertly camouflaged himself by layering his body with lemon juice, rendering himself invisible. His thoughts were that lemon juice, which is occasionally used as makeshift invisible ink, would be the ideal disguise in which to deftly carry out a robbery.

We, as human beings, all have our blind spots. We make mistakes, though admittedly few are more catastrophic than McArthur Wheeler’s venture. In fact, this event spurred a psychology professor, David Dunning, and a psychology graduate, Justin Kruger, to investigate the motives of this event further. In doing so, they established a well-known psychological phenomenon: The Dunning-Kruger Effect.

After some experimentation, the two psychologists found that while people generally hold favourable views of their own abilities in various activities, many tend to greatly inflate their self-assessment if they are objectively of relatively low ability. In other words, if a person recently took up chess, they may think they were a lot better than they actually were; whereas someone who has been playing for a few years may assess their chess skills more accurately.

That said, the Dunning-Kruger Effect has been questioned of late. The rigour behind the original experiment may not have been all that tightly controlled, and the statistical analysis employed to gather findings may have been oversimplified. Instead, the results may have reflected the human tendency to engage in the ‘overconfidence bias’, which is simply a tendency for people to overestimate their ability in general. For example, in asking a group of individuals to assess their intelligence, studies have shown that the average of all self-assessments of IQ fails to equate to 100, as it should – it usually averages at around 115.

Whether you support the Dunning-Kruger Effect or not, the lesson is still a pertinent one: we ought to be humble and prudent when we embark upon a new venture. Furthermore, the underlying questions are still of interest. Why exactly do people overestimate their ability? And why did McArthur Wheeler strut into two banks that day and commit robberies in each while wearing an all-over body suit of lemon juice?

Well, as mentioned, people overestimate their own skill levels. Moreover, they might fail to comprehend the genuine expertise of other people in their new domain, and also fail to realise their own errors or lack of skill in comparison to those of higher ability. The other explanation (which is unlikely to be the case for Wheeler) is that this could be an intentional response to feelings of inferiority. A recent study has shown that lower-skilled people tend to include more job-specific and esoteric jargon in their speech than those of higher skill, simply as a mechanism to be perceived by others as more competent than they actually are. In either case, the individual is masquerading as someone who is of a higher ability, which can be damaging to their development, mental wellbeing and reputation in the long run.

So, whether the Dunning-Kruger Effect holds up or not, the message underlying it may still be considered important. When embarking in a new territory, focus on increasing your awareness not only of yourself, but of others, too. And if inklings of inferiority are festering, get support from your more-experienced peers. In any case, wherever you sit in terms of ability, it might be better to know that you don’t know than pretend that you do.


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