Try to imagine the scene of a bank robbery. A man armed with a gun walks into your local branch. He threatens the cashier, ordering her to hand over the money. He seems exceedingly confident. This unknown assailant must be terrifying to her, the other employees ,and their clients, except…
Except the man in question isn’t wearing a mask. His face is completely unobscured, and visible for all to see – including the branch’s security cameras. The man would rob another bank later that same day, utilizing exactly the same method. What on earth made him think he could get away with this? Did he craft some ingenious method to evade modern security systems? Did he crack under the pressure of the situation? Or was he just insanely brazen? The answer may shock you, and placed him firmly in the annals of one of history’s stupidest criminals.
There are countless stories of witless robbers and less than genius criminals. Wheeler might well have just joined that endless list, and been completely forgotten, were it not for the method that he used and that he was so sure would land him safely on easy street, instead of in the big house. That bank robber will not be forgotten, because the method he used – later discovered by a psychologist who decided to examine whether it hinted at something greater in the human psyche – changed the way we perceive behavior forever. Read on to discover how one idiot made us all smarter.
The maskless bandit
One morning in 1995, an armed man walked into a bank in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and robbed it at gunpoint. A few hours later, he robbed another. Even more unusual? The fact that the man wore no mask. His face was plainly visible, not only to the people inside but also to security cameras, which captured footage of the robbery. At 5 feet 6 inches tall and 270 pounds, the man – 45-year-old McArthur Wheeler – didn’t exactly disappear into a crowd, and yet he was completely convinced he would never be caught. When cops later showed up on his doorstep, the only thing he could utter was, “But I wore the juice.”
‘But I wore the juice’
About three months after the robbery, police broadcast the video surveillance footage taken during the robbery on the local evening news. Not an hour later a tip had come in, identifying the unknown robber as Wheeler, and he was promptly arrested. Even with police officers at his door, he still couldn’t believe they found him. “But I wore the juice,” he told them. “I wore the lemon juice.” If the cops were confused as to what made him rob two banks with no mask before, now they were well and truly lost. What on earth did lemon juice have to do with bank robbery? Plenty, as it happened, or so he thought.
Invisible ink, invisible face?
Wheeler had a simple explanation for his actions: he was aware that lemon juice could be used to create an invisible ink that is completely unseen to the naked eye. By the same logic, he reasoned, if he rubbed lemon juice over his face, then it would turn invisible as well. He believed this to be a foolproof plan, though the lemon juice did sting his eyes so badly he could barely see. To others, though, the plan seems moronic beyond words.
Hidden in plain sight
While his plan didn’t actually make sense, a small part of it did hold true – it turns out that invisible ink does exist. If you use lemon juice – mixed with water – to write anything on a piece of paper, the writing will remain invisible until the paper is heated, in which case it will start showing up. The science behind it is quite simple: the juice is an organic substance that oxidizes and turns brown when heated. It’s not the only possible source for invisible ink, though, as orange juice, milk, onion juice, vinegar and even wine work just as well. Despite his confidence, Wheeler wasn’t about to leave anything to chance…
An initial test proves successful
The hapless robber wasn’t about to just march into a bank and try to rob it without a dry run first. What was he, stupid? So he made a little experiment at home, rubbing juice on his face and then using a Polaroid camera to snap a selfie. Imagine his astonishment when the photo came out clear. He was really invisible! Another theory, however, was that he was just as bad at taking photos as he was at a life of crime, and just used the camera wrong or pointed it away from his face.
A psychologist takes interest
Wheeler went to jail, and to any history books wishing to depict stupid criminals, but his story would have a more lasting impact – not on crime but in social psychology. It was precisely in one of those history books that his story was discovered by Cornell psychology professor David Dunning, who took to wondering whether a broader, more universal theme could be gleaned from the case, not necessarily regarding criminals but people in general. What his research turned up was… that he was absolutely right.
‘Unskilled and unaware of it’
Dunning, along with graduate student Justin Kruger, found a link between how much a person knows about a certain task – or more to the point, how much they don’t know – and their confidence in their ability to carry it out well. The correlation was inverse – the less a person knew about something, the more confident they were of their abilities in that area. Thus, in an article titled “Unskilled and unaware of it,” the Dunning-Kruger effect was born. We can find examples all around us, both in popular culture and real life…
Samuel Porter’s one million dollar bill
Fifteen years after Wheeler’s case, another stupid criminal raised his head in Pittsburgh (is it something in the water?). A man named Samuel Porter went into a grocery store and handed the cashier a one million dollar bill. As she refused to take it, and a manager confiscated it, Porter flew into a rage and began throwing things around. He was later charged with criminal mischief and forgery. The bill, authorities believed, may have come from a Dallas ministry, which passed out religious pamphlets resembling such a bill. The largest denomination in circulation? $100.
‘She bangs, she bangs!’
Many people today probably don’t remember the name William Hung, but if they were asked what the worst singer they have ever heard was, they’ll know. “I really like music and I’d like to make music my living,” he revealed during his American Idol audition, and then went on to butcher Ricky Martin’s She Bangs before the incredulous judges. Even more incredulous later was Hung himself, who mentioned he had no training in music, as if that explained what they had just heard. At least William took it in stride, unlike this next entry…
Mary Roach makes the earth move
Fellow American Idol contestant Mary Roach opened her audition by explaining she would change her name to Mary Guilbeaux if she made it past the audition phase because “it has more star quality,” and it only went downhill from there. She proceeded to ramble a while before singing possibly the worst rendition of a song since… Well, since William Hung. Asked by judge Simon Cowell how she thought she did, she said, “Not too shabby” and gave herself an eight. Someone else on television, this time fictional, had a sense of self-worth just as inflated.
‘Don’t ever, for any reason, do anything…’
Perhaps the most notable example of the Dunning-Kruger effect is The Office’s Michael Scott, the paper company’s boss, who’s unimaginably stupid but doesn’t have the first inkling that he is. When asked to sum up his philosophy, he said, “Don’t ever, for any reason, do anything, to anyone, for any reason, ever, no matter what, no matter where, or who, or who you are with, or where you are going, or where you’ve been, ever, for any reason whatsoever.” Couldn’t have said it better ourselves. But why is it so funny?
Why we laugh
The reason stupid people who don’t know they’re stupid are so funny is rooted in the German language, and one of its more brilliant phrases. We’ve all heard of “schadenfreude” – or glee derived from someone else’s misfortune – but have you heard of “fremdscham”? That delightful German saying describes secondhand embarrassment, meaning feeling shame at someone else’s actions. That feeling – often called the “cringe factor” – has been used numerous time to get a laugh out of us recently, but the basic premise of Dunning and Kruger has existed for ages. Don’t believe us? Read on.
Wise words from the past
Similar or related ideas have been expressed in famous texts written way back. How far back? Biblically far back. The Book of Proverbs told us, “Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise,” meaning that if you’re stupid but keep your mouth shut, no one’ll find out. William Shakespeare, meanwhile, wrote, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool” while Charles Darwin said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” Another study showed that’s true for more than just laypeople…
At this point, you might think us average joes would fall prey to that psychological fallacy, but no people who are good at what they do would. Well… Take chess, for instance, which has a mathematical rating system that provides players with precise and accurate numerical information making up a player’s “strength,” or ability. These ratings are public knowledge. Players on major tournaments were then polled on whether their rating reflected their true strength. Seventy-five percent of them thought it didn’t. Some of them had to have been wrong.
The search for idiots continues
Dunning and Kruger, meanwhile, were not content with looking at criminals – possibly because people convicted of crimes are, on average, less intelligent than those who are not – so they examined their own college students. Surely, they reasoned, if college students were just as guilty of the illusion of confidence, then everyone else is also susceptible. They examined sense of humor, knowledge of grammar and logical reasoning, and found… that no matter the topic, the less we know about it, the more confident we are, up to a point. But what’s that tipping point?
A fine line
Dunning and Kruger found the tipping point was somewhat ironically knowing just enough about the topic in question to skew our perception of our knowledge of it, but not too much. If we know just a little about something, it tends to overinflate our confidence. One study, for example, found that 80 percent of drivers believed they’re above average at driving. Let that sink in for a moment. Other findings in the Dunning-Kruger study, however, were surprising…
Higher intelligence, lower confidence
Finding that the students who scored lowest on their tests had the most exaggerated notion of how well they did was not the least bit shocking… but realizing the magnitude of the trend was: students with the lowest performance estimated their skills were superior to those of 67 percent of other students. The flip side was just as surprising: students who scored highest had slightly underestimated their own performance relative to their fellow students, echoing the Harry Potter series’ Hermione Granger. It’s not modesty – it’s knowing enough to realize how little you know – and it’s not just students. For example, remember the last time you were sick? Because as it turns out…
The dangers of self diagnosis
You had a sore throat, or a stuffy nose, or maybe something more serious like stomach ache and nausea. These days, whenever that happens, we immediately Google our symptoms in one of the countless online medical databases. And we really shouldn’t. The limitless data found online fools us into thinking we know more than we do, and we always end up discovering we have some kind of terrible illness, because our symptoms supposedly match up. Naturally, we just have a virus, or a cold, and the internet gave us just enough information to trip us up.
Some well-deserved recognition
Our weird rashes aside, Dunning and Kruger were lauded by the general public for their contribution to understanding the human psyche, but also won a very unusual accolade: an Ig Nobel Prize. Playing off of the real Nobel Prizes and the word “ignoble,” the prize committee gives out awards for trivial scientific or unusual achievements in scientific research. The two were honored in 2000 with the Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology for their research. No mean feat, as other scientists won for achieving the magnetic levitation of a frog!
What Wheeler can teach us
We’ve seen there’s endless potential for hilarity in the actions of real people like McArthur Wheeler or fictional ones like Michael Scott, whose obliviousness just screams to high heaven. Laughing, we believe, would be missing the point. As self diagnosing and Dunning and Kruger have shown us, we can all fall victim to this effect. In fact, the less likely we believe it is to happen, the likelier it is to actually happen. Consider, finally, these words from Chinese philosopher Confucius, who said, “Real knowledge is knowing the extent of one’s ignorance.”