A man robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight. He didn’t wear a mask or any sort of disguise. And he smiled at surveillance cameras before walking out of each bank. Of course, the police found the robber and later than night arrested him. When the robber was handcuffed, he was puzzled and he mumbled “but I wore the juice”. Apparently, this bank robber thought that smearing lemon juice on his face, would render him invisible to bank’s security cameras. And he didn’t just think that, he was confident about it. His rationale was that since the chemical properties of lemon juice are used in invisible ink, it should render him invisible to the bank security cameras.
This is obviously a low information way of thinking. What’s interesting is that, even after the police showed him the footage of his robbery, he was genuinely surprised that it didn’t work and he thought the footage was fake. The police concluded that this man was not crazy or on drugs, just incredibly misinformed and mistaken. The funny robbery led two social psychologists, Dunning and Kruger, to study this low information phenomenon more deeply. Specifically, what interested them the most, was the confidence exerted by this robber, that made him believe he’d be able to obstruct the security cameras with just lemon juice.
To investigate this in the lab, they examined a group of undergraduate students in several categories: their grammatical writing, logical reasoning and a sense of humor. After knowing the test scores, they asked each student to estimate his or her overall score, as well as their relative rank compared to other students. This is when Dunning and Kruger found something fascinating. They found that the students who scored the lowest in these cognitive tasks, always overestimated how well they did. And not just by a little, but by a lot. They thought they had scored above average, while their score was one the lowest. So, not only were those students incompetent or less skilled in those areas, but they obviously didn’t even know just how bad they were at them. Students who scored the highest, had more accurate perceptions of their abilities, but they made a different mistake.
Paradoxically the highest scoring students underestimated their performance. They knew they were better than average at the test, but because it was easy for them, they assumed it was easy for everyone. They didn’t know that their ability was at the top percentile. Today this phenomenon is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Essentially, low information people do not possess the skills needed to recognize their own incompetence or lack of knowledge. Their poor self-awareness & low information leads them to overestimate their own capabilities. You can clearly see what I mean in this graph here. Having barely any skill or knowledge, leads to massive confidence. However, when you become more knowledgeable about a certain topic, that confidence falls. Only when you start to reach above average skill, is when your confidence about a certain topic starts to pick up again.
Contrary to popular belief, this is not just limited to cognitive tasks. It doesn’t seem to matter what specific skill we pick, the less a person knows about any given activity, the more likely they are to overestimate their skill or knowledge. The Dunning-Kruger effect can be observed during talent shows like American Idol. The auditions are usually filled with a variety of good and bad singers. The ones who are bad at it, almost never realize how bad they really are. That’s why they’re genuinely disappointed when they get rejected. The truth it, we’re not very good at evaluating ourselves accurately. In fact, most people believe, that they are better than average. 88% of people think that they’re better drivers than the majority, and even elderly people rank themselves among the best drivers. A more interesting example is that 94% of professors assume that they are better in comparison to their colleagues.
We judge ourselves as better than others, to a degree that violates the laws of math. But why? Why does being less skilled make you more confident in your abilities? To help visualize how this happens, say there’s an amateur photographer name ‘Joe’ and he’s holding a medium-sized box. The box represents how much he knows about photography. The box he’s holding represents his estimation of is how big he thinks the field of knowledge to be had in this endeavor is and how much there is to know about it. By his own reasoning, he’s easily at the top percentile of all photographers. Let’s say he meets a professional photographer, someone who has been doing it for 7 years, but he still has a lot to learn. This photographer is holding a bigger box which represents what he does know about photography. He also knows that the field is still much larger than the box he is holding, and his box could probably fit inside that. Because this photographer is more knowledgeable about the subject, he knows that this gray area exists. However, Joe does not. Now you can see why Joe is so confident in his ability. He has no idea just how much he doesn’t know.
Because he has low information of the field, he doesn’t know that it’s way more extensive than that. Therefore, because he doesn’t know, what he does not know, he thinks he knows 90% about photography. Meanwhile, experts tend to be aware of just how knowledgeable they are. But they often make a different mistake: they assume that everyone else is knowledgeable as well, mostly because others exert so much confidence. In this instance, the experienced photographer’s aware he only knows about 70% but if he met someone like Joe, he would underestimate himself. 90% is better than 70% after all. We are all susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect. But how can we prevent ourselves from falling prey to it? Well the answer is, you should strive to educate yourself as much as possible. You’re not expected to know everything after all. Thinking you’re always right is a clear sign of foolishness.
It seems that the more knowledge people have, the more they realize how little they know. In other words, the more people know about a certain issue, the more they realize how complicated, unexplored and extensive it is, and how many things they do not understand or know yet. It’s a beautiful paradox in which the more we study something, the less we know about it. On the other hand, people who dabble on the surface of anything they pursue, will never know how much they still must learn. In the Dunning-Kruger experiment, unskilled or incompetent students improved their ability to correctly estimate the test results after receiving minimal tutoring on the skills they lacked. It’s helpful to have someone who is ahead of you show you what you have yet to learn. So next time you feel confident that you know a lot about something, take a closer look at the topic as it could be that you are low information. You just might not know what you don’t know.