It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Charles Darwin once observed, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge,” and Justin Kruger and David Dunning of Cornell University confirmed more or less in a 1999 scientific Paper a cognitive bias that leads many incompetent people to display incredible confidence. The stupidity/ignorance that engenders poor decision-making at the same time blinds them to the poor quality of their judgement. As the scientists put it, “Overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”
Conversely, according to the same cognitive dynamic, intelligent people’s more acute “metacognitive ability” can afflict them with greater self-doubt and a consequent lack of confidence. While in tests on students those “at the bottom end of the bell curve held inflated opinions of their own talents, hugely inflated,” the more gifted tended to underestimate their performance.
Dan Keogh of ABC television recently investigated this phenomenon. He cites an example of this (mal-?)cognition in practice:
“Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1995. A local man, McArthur Wheeler, walks into two banks in the middle of the day and robs them both at gunpoint. Making away with the cash, he is arrested later that evening. Back at the station police sit him down and show him footage from the banks’ security cameras. Wheeler can’t believe it, the cameras had somehow seen through his disguise. He was seen mumbling to himself, ‘But I wore the juice.’ His was no ordinary disguise; no balaclava, mask or elaborate makeup, just lemon juice, liberally applied to the face. He was certain that the squirt of citrus would render him invisible to security cameras.”
Breathtaking stupidity like this might make us “want to shake them by the collar and scream about how stupid they are.” But evidence shows the best strategy is education:
“The rather odd element of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that the incompetent don’t become aware of it until they become more competent. The key is education. Extending on their earlier experiments, Dunning and Kruger took half of their volunteers and trained them in how to solve the logic puzzles. It was as though a light went on for the under achievers. For the first time out of all the tests they began to realise that they were below average. Suddenly aware of their incompetence, they readjusted their estimates to something more realistic.”
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