Ode to the Numpty or Why Incompetence is a Double-Edged Sword

A photograph showing the hapless character of Mr Bean, played by British comedian Rowan Atkinson.


You.  Yes, YOU!  You’re pretty smart, right?  Clever and witty too, I bet.  Of course you are.  You’re just like me.  But wouldn’t it just be terrible if we were all thoroughly mistaken.  Psychologists have now shown that we are more likely to be blind to our own failings than perhaps we do realise.  This might explain why some incompetent people are SO annoying… and also inject a healthy dose of humility into our own sense of self-regard…

Let’s be honest.  We’ve all met them in a variety of environments.  The workplace numpty.  The numpty on the phone.  The social network numpty.  The numpty in front of the queue… 

For the sake of my international readers, I ought to define what I mean by the Scottish vernacular term “numpty”.

According to the Urban Dictionary, a numpty is

a) Someone who (sometimes unwittingly) by speech or action demonstrates a lack of knowledge or misconception of a particular subject or situation to the amusement of others.

b) A good humoured admonition, a term of endearment

c) A reckless, absent minded or unwise person

a. “No. That wisnae wit she meant, ya big numpty!”
b. “Silly billy”, “You big dafty”, “You numpty!”
c. “That numpty’s driving with no lights on!”


You get the idea.


Now, it may sound strange but scientists research anything…

A humoristic cartoon demonstrating the Dunning-Kruger effect of illusory superiority. A man looks at his reflection in a mirror: he sees himself as Superman. We then see the same man walking away from the mirror: his reflection is no longer that of Superman, but of the Disney character, Goofy.
Illusory Superiority: People tend to hold overly favourable views of their personal abilities in many social and intellectual domains.

In 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, from Cornell University, New York, tested whether people who lack the skills or abilities for something are also more likely to lack awareness of their lack of ability.

At the start of their research paper, Kruger and Dunning cite the case of a Pittsburgh bank robber called McArthur Wheeler, as an example, who was arrested in 1995 shortly after robbing two banks in broad daylight without wearing a mask or any other kind of disguise.  When police confronted him with the security camera footage, he protested: “But I wore the juice.”  Apparently, the hapless criminal believed that if you rubbed your face with lemon juice, you would be invisible to security cameras…

The Strange Case of the Juice-Wearing Bank Robber


From 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 recognised 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. 

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 disguising his appearance.  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 baffled.  ‘But I wore the juice,’ he claimed.  Apparently, he was under the deeply misguided impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to video cameras.


Sheer Incompetence

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 that he had in fact 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.’  Wheeler 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.  Either

(a) the film was bad; or

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

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



The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, partly 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 also, their own incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realise it.

Successful negotiation of everyday life would seem to require people to possess a reasonable insight about the deficiencies in their own intellectual and social skills.  However, certain people tend to be blissfully unaware of their incompetence.

This lack of awareness arises because poor performers are doubly cursed:

  •  their lack of skill deprives them not only of the ability to produce correct responses, but also 
  • the expertise necessary to surmise that they are not producing them.

People base their perceptions of performance, partly on their preconceived notions about their skills.  Because these notions often do not correlate with objective performance, they can lead people to make judgements about their performance that have little to do with any actual accomplishment.

Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill – the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error.  Improving the skills of the participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognise the limitations of their abilities. 

As Dunning read through the article, he had an epiphany.  If Wheeler was too stupid to be a bank robber, perhaps he was also too stupid to know he was too stupid to be a bank robber – that is, his stupidity effectively sheltered him from being aware of his own stupidity.


Why People Often Fail to Recognise Their Own Incompetence

A graph showing the Dunning-Kruger effect curve: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence leads to inflated self-assessment.
Confidence versus Experience – The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Kruger and Dunning were interested in testing another kind of laughing matter.  They asked professional comedians to rate 30 jokes for funniness.  Then, 65 undergraduates were asked to rate the jokes too, and then ranked according to how well their judgements matched those of the professionals.  They were also asked how well they thought they had done compared to the average person.

Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humour, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability.  Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, the participants estimated themselves to be in the 62nd.

As you might expect, most people thought their ability to tell what was funny was above average.  However, the results were the most interesting when split according to how well participants had performed.

Those slightly above average in their ability to rate jokes were highly accurate in their self-assessment, while those who actually did the best tended to think they were only slightly above average.  Participants who were least able to judge what was funny (at least according to the professional comedians) were also least able to accurately assess their own ability.

This finding was not a quirk of trying to measure subjective sense of humour.  The researchers repeated the experiment, only this time with tests of logical reasoning and grammar.  These disciplines have defined answers, and in each case they found the same pattern: those people who performed the worst were also the worst in estimating their own aptitude.  In all three studies, those whose performance put them in the lowest quarter massively overestimated their own abilities by rating themselves as above average.

And it did not even help the poor performers to be given a benchmark.  In a later study, the most incompetent participants still failed to realise that they were bottom of the pack, even when given feedback on the performance of others.

Kruger and Dunning’s interpretation is that accurately assessing skill level relies on some of the same core abilities as actually performing that skill, so the least competent suffer a double deficit.  Not only are they incompetent, but they lack the very mental tools to judge their own incompetence.

In a key final test, Kruger and Dunning trained a group of poor performers in logical reasoning tasks.  This improved participants’ self-assessments, suggesting that ability levels really did influence self-awareness.


Illusory Superiority or the Lake Wobegon effect

A meme demonstrating the Dunning-Kruger effect in action. The photograph shows a car upside-down. The caption reads: "93% of us think we're above-average drivers".Other research has shown that this “unskilled and unaware of it” effect holds true in real-life situations, and not just in abstract laboratory tests. 

For example, hunters who know the least about firearms also have the most inaccurate view of their fire-arm knowledge, and doctors with the worst patient-interviewing skills are the least likely to recognise their inadequacies.

What has become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect is an example of what psychologists call metacognition – thinking about thinking.  It is also something that should give us all pause for thought.  The effect might just explain the apparently baffling self-belief of some of your friends and colleagues.

Anyway…  Before you get too smug, just remember this!

As unlikely as you might think it is, YOU TOO could be walking around blissfully ignorant of your own ignorance.

And there’s nothing you can do about it…

You might as well just accept it and…

Embrace your inner numpty!


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