Tuesday 22 June 2010

You've got to know to ask...

In my work on political ignorance, I found that, correcting for other covariates, folks without much political knowledge aren't much helped by having access to cueing groups: the social groups which might help otherwise ignorant folks in sorting out for whom to vote.  The usual story says that political ignorance doesn't much matter if there's a smart person around that you can ask for help.

But you have to know to ask.

And so both BoingBoing and Marginal Revolution today point to this:
Wheeler had walked into two Pittsburgh banks and attempted to rob them in broad daylight.  What made the case peculiar is that he made no visible attempt at disguise.  The surveillance tapes were key to his arrest.  There he is with a gun, standing in front of a teller demanding money.  Yet, when arrested, Wheeler was completely disbelieving.  “But I wore the juice,” he said.

Apparently, he was under the deeply misguided impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to video cameras.


As Dunning read through the article, a thought washed over him, an epiphany. If Wheeler was too stupid to be a bank robber, perhaps he was also too stupid to know that he was too stupid to be a bank robber — that is, his stupidity protected him from an awareness of his own stupidity.

Dunning wondered whether it was possible to measure one’s self-assessed level of competence against something a little more objective — say, actual competence. Within weeks, he and his graduate student, Justin Kruger, had organized a program of research. Their paper, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments,” was published in 1999.[3]

Dunning and Kruger argued in their paper, “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead, like Mr. Wheeler, they are left with the erroneous impression they are doing just fine.”

It became known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect — our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence.
At least in bank robberies, you get pretty quick feedback that your "lemon juice makes me invisible" strategy isn't really viable. Shame there isn't such feedback in voting.


  1. I wonder if the efficacy is improved by using different citrus fruit? I'm off to buy me some limes and rob a bank.

  2. I'm not greatly surprised by political ignorance or indifference. I'm even less surprised by lack of knowledge in economics, weird and arcane an art as it is, and I freely admit to being economically illiterate myself.
    However it defies belief that someone should be sufficiently gullible as to believe that lemon juice renders one unrecognisable on video footage. Astonishing. Was the fellow retarded?