McArthur Wheeler was a big dude with a history of mental health issues. Tired of working a low-wage job, and bored with his situation, he decided to do something exciting.
Wheeler would rob banks. Sure, this was a high-stakes game, but Wheeler knew something the average person didn’t know. Wheeler had a plan:
Bank robbers typically want to obscure their face in some way, typically via a disguise or mask, but Wheeler didn’t need any of those things. He knew that lemon juice was used as invisible ink, so he smeared it all over his face.
Wheeler confidently strolled into two banks that day. Of course, the security footage clearly showed his face, unmistakable and unhindered by any invisible ink. Wheeler legitimately seemed flabbergasted by this, even saying five words that should have gone down in meme history:
“But I wore the juice!”
Alas, there were no memes back in 1995, so people did scientific studies instead.
Dr. David Dunning and his then-graduate student, Justin Kruger were already exploring the relationship between competence and self-perception when they stumbled upon the curious case of Wheeler. Intrigued by his misplaced confidence, they decided to dig deeper, hypothesizing that they might find a pattern where individuals with low ability at a task often grossly overestimate their capability.
By 1999, Dunning and Kruger were ready to perform a robust study. Their participants evaluated their own abilities in “inductive, deductive, and abductive logical reasoning, English grammar, and appreciation of humor.”
The results were stark and consistent: those who performed at the bottom quartile grossly overestimated their performance, believing they were performing above average. It wasn’t just a minor miscalculation but a profound mismatch between perceived competence and actual skill.
Herein lies a glaring paradox: you don’t know what you don’t know.
The abilities you need to have in order to evaluate your own skill? That’s the exact same skill set you need to perform said task competently. In other words, those without the skill often remain blissfully unaware of their inadequacy.
This cognitive bias has since been christened the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Hopefully, it’s clear that this cognitive bias doesn't only apply in the realm of science or bank heists. It pervades everyday life.
Karaoke and Jiu Jitsu
It’s probably fair to say that I’ve seen (and heard) more than my fair share of karaoke. In my late 20s, it was a weekly mainstay I never missed, and I got to see some performances.
Now, I don’t view karaoke as something you have to nail perfectly. In fact, I think it’s sort of the opposite of that, where you should be liberated to enjoy yourself by singing as sloppily as you want, as long as you put some enthusiasm into the performance.
With that being said, there’s a certain type of performer who doesn’t really have a sense of humor about themselves. Every note needs to be perfect, and if you don’t clap for them loudly enough, they’ll get mad.
I see this frequently in jiu jitsu, where a blue belt (the second lowest rank in BJJ) will point out how someone should be a purple belt by now (one belt rank higher than blue). Sometimes that “someone” is them. Looking back on my own path to 4th degree black belt (you can read that in an Anchorman voice if you’d like), I can see that I barely understood what constituted a blue belt by the time I was a brown belt.
You just don’t know what you don’t know.
The More You Know
Dunning-Kruger isn’t just about bank robbers with lemon juice or karaoke stars taking themselves too seriously. In politics, it means overconfident pundits making awful policy, since they’ve got it all figured out. In business, a CEO might bet the company on a poor proposition due to feeling like a god all the time.
And, the phenomenon is everywhere.
Almost every driver thinks they’re above average. Most of us do this more than we’re aware, and this false confidence utterly destroys any chance of self-reflection and improvement over time. Instead of gradually making yourself better, Dunning-Kruger can make you more arrogant.
However, there’s one vital tool to combating this effect in your own life: knowledge of the phenomenon’s existence.
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