Tuesday, May 31, 2016

McArthur Wheeler - Index Case for the Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning–Kruger effect has popped up in a couple of articles I read in the past week. It is not uncommon that when a specialized term enters the common vernacular it is either misunderstood and/or not correct. Think of the example of the Implicit Association Test which burst on the scene a decade or so ago with an easy explanation for why we are all racists (its all subconscious prejudice which the test reveals). It played so nicely to the advocacy narrative that it was a few years before robust studies revealed that there was no correlation between IAT results and actual racist actions.

Seeing the increase in the frequency of allusion to Dunning-Kruger, I thought it prudent to check and see whether the earlier tests and research had lately become undermined. From the Wikipedia article, it appears not. Dunning Kruger remains a real effect though our understanding is deepening and refining. As a reminder:
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is. Dunning and Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their own ineptitude and evaluate their own ability accurately. Their research also suggests corollaries: highly skilled individuals may underestimate their relative competence and may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.
It is often lost in common parlance that Dunning-Krueger is symmetrical. High capacity individuals underestimate their competence while low capacity individuals overestimate their competence. Most the popular conversation centers on the latter phenomenon.

Perhaps that is not surprising since we have suffered nearly a decade of political Dunning-Krugerism writ large. Our political elite seem to suffer under the impression that their catastrophic bumblings have actually been wise and beneficial for everyone. The electorate clearly thinks otherwise, returning presidential candidates who are 1) an android serial liar and near felon several updates behind in their empathy and ethics modules running as a human Democrat, 2) a declared socialist running as a Democrat, 3) a former Democrat bombast running as a Republican, and 4) a former Republican running as a Libertarian. If that is not symptomatic of an electorate rejecting their Dunning-Kruger plagued political establishment, I don't know what is.

I was amused, in reading the Wikipedia entry, to discover the origin story for Dunning and Kruger's original research, what gave them the idea in the first place.
The phenomenon was first experimentally observed in a series of experiments by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the department of psychology at Cornell University in 1999. The study was inspired by the case of McArthur Wheeler, a man who robbed two banks after covering his face with lemon juice in the mistaken belief that, because lemon juice is usable as invisible ink, it would prevent his face from being recorded on surveillance cameras. The authors noted that earlier studies suggested that ignorance of standards of performance lies behind a great deal of incorrect self-assessment of competence.

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