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2/28/12

Where’s Waldo with no Waldo?: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

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At 5 foot 6 inches and 270 pounds, bank robber McArthur Wheeler, 45, was not difficult to remember.

In 1995, he walked into two Pittsburgh banks and robbed them in broad daylight. He wore no ski mask, no nylon stocking. In fact, he wore nothing over his face and did not disguise his body. Witnesses gave a consistent description of him, and one that made him stand out from faces in the crowd. The surveillance cameras corroborated their description. There he was, plain as day, pointing his gun at a teller.

The police arrested him and when they did he could not believe they found him out. "But I wore the juice," he said. He had rubbed lemon juice over his face, believing it made him invisible to the cameras.

After the arrest, police Sergeant Wally Long stated that the thief had tested the juice on himself prior to the robbery. "Although Wheeler reported the lemon juice was burning his face and his eyes, and he was having trouble (seeing) and had to squint, he had tested the theory, and it seemed to work.” Wheeler took Polaroid pictures and none of them showed his face. He thought he was all set and ready to go.

Sergeant Long figured that either the the film was bad, or Wheeler hadn’t properly adjusted the camera, or he pointed the camera away from his face.

Leafing through a 1996 World Almanac, David Dunning, a Cornell social psychology professor, came upon the McArthur Wheeler incident. A thought occurred to Dunning. Wheeler was too stupid to be a bank robber. Perhaps he was also too stupid to know that he was too stupid to be a bank robber. Stupidity was its own protection. It insulated him from awareness of itself.

Dunning asked himself if stupidity could see through itself and in this question, he teamed up with graduate student Justin Kroger. After research, they wrote a paper in 1999 with the unwieldy but impressively academic title,“Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments.”

So can stupidity see through itself? No. Their paper states, “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead, like Mr. Wheeler, they are left with the erroneous impression they are doing just fine.”

This became known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Incompetence masks incompetence. Does this apply only to the McArthur Wheeler's of the world? How widespread is it? More
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