What’s that, young child, you want Grandpa to tell you the story about the Dunning-Kruger effect, eh? Well, if you insist, but only if you go steal me some of those little blue pills I was telling you about. Mmm, that’s it. That’s the stuff.
First described by psychology researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University, New York, the Dunning-Kruger effect describes the tendency of individuals who are incompetent in a particular domain to overestimate their own level of skill in that domain. This is due to a lack of metacognitive ability in those who are unskilled in evaluating their own performance. Put simply, by Dunning himself: “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent … the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognise what a right answer is.” For some of you, the Dunning-Kruger effect also explains why you did better than you thought you would on that final exam, because conversely those with true ability tend to underestimate their relative competence.
Perhaps even more interesting than the findings of the research is the curious incident which inspired the endeavour. In 1995, an American named McArthur Wheeler robbed two Pittsburgh banks after covering his face in lemon juice. Wheeler came to the egregious conclusion that like invisible ink, lemon juice would render his face invisible to bank security cameras.
The security tapes were broadcasted on the evening news, and Wheeler was identified and arrested by police nearly immediately. “But I wore the juice!” he objected while police showed him surveillance footage of the robbery. Wheeler explained to one of the detectives handling the case that he had tested his theory, taking a picture of himself with a Polaroid camera. When his face failed to appear in the subsequent photograph, this somehow vindicated his hypothesis. Detectives later speculated that this may have been caused by a number of reasons, one of them being lemon juice in Wheeler’s eyes, and, unsurprisingly, none of them being that lemon juice is in fact conducive towards invisibility.
But don’t fret, whilst Wheeler’s level of incompetence may be beyond salvage, for most of us who still don’t get how i2 = -1, or why the s and p atomic orbitals hybridise to form four sp3 orbitals, there is hope. Dunning and Kruger also found that if individuals are exposed to training in the particular area in which they are deficient, they would enhance their metacognitive ability to recognise and concede to their shortcomings, as well as the obvious benefits of improving in that skill.
So next time you walk out of a test thinking you probably failed, remember that you may be underestimating your true level of skill. And if you walk out feeling completely confident, bear in mind that you might just suck so bad you don’t even know it.