Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Errol Morris: The Anosognosic’s Dilemma -- Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is (Pt. 1)

The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is (Pt. 1)
The New York Times

David Dunning, a Cornell professor of social psychology, was perusing the 1996 World Almanac. In a section called Offbeat News Stories he found a tantalizingly brief account of a series of bank robberies committed in Pittsburgh the previous year. From there, it was an easy matter to track the case to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, specifically to an article by Michael A. Fuoco:


At 5 feet 6 inches and about 270 pounds, bank robbery suspect McArthur Wheeler isn’t the type of person who fades into the woodwork. So it was no surprise that he was recognized by informants, who tipped detectives to his whereabouts after his picture was telecast Wednesday night during the Pittsburgh Crime Stoppers Inc. segment of the 11 o’clock news.

At 12:10 a.m. yesterday, less than an hour after the broadcast, he was arrested at 202 S. Fairmont St., Lincoln-Lemington. Wheeler, 45, of Versailles Street, McKeesport, was wanted in [connection with] bank robberies on Jan. 6 at the Fidelity Savings Bank in Brighton Heights and at the Mellon Bank in Swissvale. In both robberies, police said, Wheeler was accompanied by Clifton Earl Johnson, 43, who was arrested Jan. 12.[1]

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.

In a follow-up article, Fuoco spoke to several Pittsburgh police detectives who had been involved in Wheeler’s arrest. Commander Ronald Freeman assured Fuoco that Wheeler had not gone into “this thing” blindly but had performed a variety of tests prior to the robbery. Sergeant Wally Long provided additional details — “although Wheeler reported the lemon juice was burning his face and his eyes, and he was having trouble (seeing) and had to squint, he had tested the theory, and it seemed to work.” He had snapped a Polaroid picture of himself and wasn’t anywhere to be found in the image. It was like a version of Where’s Waldo with no Waldo. Long tried to come up with an explanation of why there was no image on the Polaroid. He came up with three possibilities:

(a) the film was bad;

(b) Wheeler hadn’t adjusted the camera correctly; or

(c) Wheeler had pointed the camera away from his face at the critical moment when he snapped the photo.[2]

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. But just how prevalent is this effect?

To Read the Rest of the Essay and the Other Four Parts

No comments: