The less you know, the more confident you are.
The phenomenon is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s something that you probably see every day. The person who has no clue what they’re talking about, yet they speak with such confidence that you’re left wondering what’s going on.
There was a bank robber who found himself the victim of Dunning-Kruger. His name was McArthur Wheeler. He beat the US government to discover invisibility. Little did the Pentagon know, all you needed to do was cover yourself in lemon juice.
McArthur realised lemon juice turned ink invisible. That’s when it hit him. If it works on ink, why not skin? He wasn’t any fool, though. A test run was necessary. Grabbing his polaroid camera, he snapped a picture of his face. It wasn’t there. McArthur had done it. There was no need to take a second picture; he had all the proof he needed.
“Put the money in the bag!” He screamed at the clerks while they filled his duffles with cash.
It was all coming together. At home, he opened his bounty. It was more cash than he had ever seen.
“Knock, knock!” Someone was hammering on the door.
McArthur opened the door to five officers.
“You’re under arrest!” They shouted.
Arthur stood there in silence. His eyes were wide open, and his mouth dropped. Time stood still, but the officers weren’t preparing for a face-off. His face had a look of confusion. He blurted it out…
“But I wore the lemon juice?“
It turns out his camera likely missed his face by sheer luck. He never showed up in that test photo, whether it was a bad film or a poor angle. But that’s not what caught him. McArthur knew so little about the science that it took a single photo to convince him.
What is the Dunning-Kruger effect?
Researchers started noticing the effect during questionnaires. Participants were asked to predict events and list how confident they were in their predictions.
An unusual trend formed. The people who knew a lot about a topic were more confident in their predictions. No surprise here. The less about the topic people knew, the faster their confidence decreased. That is, except for one cluster of people. They also marked themselves as being confident in their predictions. The difference was that they had close to no experience with the topic.
The Dunning-Kruger effect: The less you know about a topic, the more you believe you do. The kicker is that the person doesn’t know they don’t know. It’s a mental blind spot that has us all vulnerable.
Why are we like this?
One explanation behind the phenomenon is that it’s believed to be a protective mechanism. If there’s one thing your brain doesn’t like, it’s uncertainty. When you have little understanding of a topic, you become overwhelmed. You don’t know what you don’t know. It’s these feelings that make learning hard. We all want the skills, but none of us wants to feel the pain of being a beginner.
What if we didn’t have to? What if there was a way that your brain could save you from the pain of uncertainty. As it happens, there is a way. All it requires is confidence. The less a person knows, the more they must compensate for it with confidence. The more unsure your brain is, the harder it doubles down on your initial impression.
The Dunning-Kruger effect isn’t manipulative. The person genuinely believes what they’re saying. It’s a blind spot and one that we all have.
We might not believe lemon juice will make us invisible, but it always helps to check our blind spots from time to time. That’s the problem with the Dunning-Kruger effect. It hides in plain sight. And when it comes to complex issues, beware of the simple answers.Published in