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But I Wore The Juice! The Illusion of Competence

If you're looking for an engaging way to introduce students to the concept of cognitive biases, I'd definitely recommend doing an activity based on the illusion of competence.


Setting The Scene:


A great way of introducing students to the cognitive bias which inflates self-assessment is to tell them the incredible story of McArthur Wheeler; who - according to the headline in the newspaper which first reported his flawed criminal plan - had 'larceny in his heart but little in his head'.


Read the following sentence to students.


In 1995, McArthur Wheeler walked into two Pittsburgh banks and robbed them in broad daylight, with no visible attempt at disguise. He was arrested later that night, less than an hour after videotapes of him taken from surveillance cameras were broadcast on the 11 o'clock news. When police later showed him the surveillance tapes, Mr. Wheeler stared in incredulity. "But I wore the juice," he mumbled. Apparently, Mr. Wheeler was under the impression that rubbing one's face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to videotape cameras. - Justin Kruger and David Dunning's research article Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated....



The authors highlighted the case of McArthur Wheeler in order to suggest that people are inclined to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains and that this 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.



  • Can you think of any other examples of delusional overconfidence? (hint: talent shows are often a good source).
  • Why do you think people tend to overrate their skills and abilities?
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As a result of their pioneering research into metacognitive competence, anything said to be demonstrating the illusion of competence/superiority/confidence etc. is now commonly referred to as the 'Dunning-Kruger effect'.




Real World Relevance:


The illusion of competence is a great topic for showing how psychological concepts often have real world relevance. For instance, take the robust finding that up to 80% of drivers rate themselves as above average. A finding that may explain why so many road safety campaigns are ultimately unsuccessful.


It would appear extremely plausible that the majority of drivers do not identify with those who are in need of instruction. After all, why should drivers pay attention to information aimed at improving their safety if they are already better than the average driver in any case?


Ask your students if they can come up with any other real-world examples.



Supporting Video:


Why incompetent people think they're amazing - David Dunning.



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