In Pittsburgh in 1995 a bloke named McArthur Wheeler held up two banks with a gun. He was arrested the same night. When the cops came to his door, he was flabbergasted. "But I wore the juice!" he exclaimed.
It turns out McArthur knew lemon juice could be used as invisible ink, so deduced if he covered his face with it he would be invisible to security cameras. He tested his theory with a Polaroid camera, and claims his face was indeed obscured, proving his photography skills aligned with his criminal acumen.
His astounding stupidity was noted by Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger and became a 1999 paper entitled .
The more you think you know
The Dunning-Kruger effect is this – if you're really stupid, you're too stupid to know how stupid you are. It was the bottom percentile of test subjects in the study who pronounced themselves excellent at things they were actually crap at.
It was with great delight I discovered the D-K effect a few years ago, because it explained the plague of idiots lurching through life like over-confident zombies. You can point to Pauline Hanson, the Kardashians, Donald Trump, that guy from sales, astrologers and psychics, your aunts and uncles…it neatly explains pretty much everything.
But the best place to see it is in the mirror. Think about it. Could I be so dumb I don't know how dumb I am?
Yes, you too
Everyone thinks they're an excellent driver. I think I am okay. But my self-assessment comes from years of motoring journalism, a lot of track days and an exhausting 8-hour high-performance driving course, coached by V8 Supercar drivers.
At a track day a while ago, before I'd heard of the D-K effect, drivers were asked who considered themselves "expert". Two-thirds of the hands of the room went up. Not mine. "What about you?" the instructor asked. I'm pleased to say my answer was "I know about enough to know I know nothing at all."
My partner, too, believes she's an excellent driver. I have not seen much evidence to support this, but then I have my eyes shut most of the time I'm in the car with her. Her strategy of selecting gears totally at random could well be genius.
The power of blind belief
I also believe, however, I could still grab a spot on the side of the scrum for the All Blacks, should I be bothered, despite the lack of overweight 52-year-olds vying for selection. I could also sing Eddie Vedder off the stage, I think, if he'd let me have a go. If I didn't have to live in the MasterChef house for three months I imagine I would be the 2017 winner. Waleed Aly better watch out should I ever get my bum on The Project. Should I ever become single again I'll be fine because lady-people are not immune to my unique rugged-but-sensitive masculinity. Hmmm.
On the other hand, I've been writing professionally for 32 years and sometimes think I'm okay at it. Then I read some Henry Miller, Iain M. Banks, or Emily Dickinson and realise I am dribbling and bumping into furniture, and always will be.
A little self-awareness goes a long way. Acknowledging the D-K effect in life, in an era where every kiddy wins a prize and if you only follow your dreams, you will succeed, could lead to a lot of avoided disappointment.
In my life, I have screwed up a bunch of stuff and have to acknowledge if I'd perhaps been a little less sure of my own awesomeness, perhaps I could have avoided a few embarrassing catastrophes. I'll certainly be trying to avoid D-K-ing myself in the future.
In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this brilliant column.
Are you convinced of your own brilliance? Share your so-called incredible thoughts in the comments section below.
With more than 25 years in Australian media, Phil Barker has edited NW and Woman's Day magazines, and published such titles as Vogue, GQ, Delicious, InsideOut and Donna Hay. He is owner of a creative events and activations agency and is a regular commentator on the life and style of Australian men.