Errol Morris: The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is

In his ongoing series of fascinating NYT essays on the "influence and uses of photography," documentary filmmaker Errol Morris interviews David Dunning, co-author of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which says stupid people are too stupid to realize they are stupid.

Morris opens his piece with the story of attempted bank robber MacArthur Wheeler, who rubbed lemon juice on his face before entering the bank because he believed it would render him invisible to security cameras. "If Wheeler was too stupid to be a bank robber," writes Morris, "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."

DAVID DUNNING: Well, my specialty is decision-making. How well do people make the decisions they have to make in life? And I became very interested in judgments about the self, simply because, well, people tend to say things, whether it be in everyday life or in the lab, that just couldn’t possibly be true. And I became fascinated with that. Not just that people said these positive things about themselves, but they really, really believed them. Which led to my observation: if you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.

ERROL MORRIS: Why not?

DAVID DUNNING: If you knew it, you’d say, “Wait a minute. The decision I just made does not make much sense. I had better go and get some independent advice.” But when you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is. In logical reasoning, in parenting, in management, problem solving, the skills you use to produce the right answer are exactly the same skills you use to evaluate the answer. And so we went on to see if this could possibly be true in many other areas. And to our astonishment, it was very, very true.

The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is (Part 1)

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