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.


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)


  1. Isnt that fairly easy to avoid? I mean by being around other people and informing them about your plans, your dreams and your ideas about a magic method of dissappearing from photographs someone will simply inform you that your an idiot… Its what being a social animal is all about. Since most of all decisions are made by using past experience and information gained by others, perhaps he had a very weak social network?

    1. Yeah, but how will you evaluate the advice given to you by others? Probably by the same faulty filter… Unless the situation is fairly trivial, it can be really difficult to distinguish nonsense spoken by a fool from correct advice given by an expert — even more so if the nonsense is pleasant and the truth uncomfortable.

  2. Hey, know where this phenomenon is really prevalent? Among people who hold political beliefs contradictory to my own! Heh.

  3. Dunning missed the obvious explanation that we ALL overestimate our own abilities and capabilities. Duh! Except maybe when clinically depressed. ;D

  4. Interesting point, but a rather simplistic argument. They’re implying that people who have unrealistic visions of themselves are “stupid” or incompetent. I think it’s more likely they are simply lacking the ability of self-reflection. Though I could be wrong. Or stupid.

    1. It is the single most vexing problem of philosophy, ethics, and human self-determination.

      It invalidates the applicability of the Categorical Imperative (among many other philosophical investigations, thus making moot much of modern Western philosophical thought), brings into doubt free will, and explains such things as the rise of Nazism and technicians pulling neutron control rods out of destabilised criticality piles that have boiled all the coolant off of them (and thus have defeated the sensors that rely on there being cooling water between them and the pile going critical).

      It’s highly related to the Black Swan Theory Problem (There are no such things as black swans – Oh Look, The New World and Black Swans!).

      It produces bitter arguments on Internet Message Boards, political battles over global warming and evolution versus militant Creationists, persuades people to give in to racketeers and bullies and abusers, and gets innocent people convicted by juries who don’t and won’t understand what exactly “beyond a reasonable doubt” entails no matter how clearly you define it for them because they think their emotions are “reasonable”.

  5. those too stupid to realize it tend to suffer from wildly misplaced confidence while intelligent people, in recognizing their own faults, tend to have less self esteem and are less self assured.

    sigh. sometimes i wish i was dumb enough to be happy. keep up the good work, beer.

  6. My self-esteem and confidence are so low that I’m probably immune to this effect . . . but I now have this terrible fear that maybe they’re not low enough!

  7. As I think his paper once said, it’s a lack of metacognitive awareness. I’d like to think of it as a cognitive Catch-22.

    1. Actually it does, but only if you rub it into the eyes of the people watching the security footage.

  8. Hmm. Seems like the context of the decision is very relevant. For example, to me eating a wafer and drinking a little wine allows dead people to enter a mysterious and invisible place where everything is wonderful would seem pretty stupid – equal in fact to rubbing lemon juice on one’s face to be invisible.

    Imagine if all this person’s family and friends, people in spiffy uniforms with funny collars and a collection of famous politicians and television networks told him the same story that lemon juice makes you invisible.

    Who’s the dumb person here?

  9. “There have been many psychological studies that tell us what we see and what we hear is shaped by our preferences, our wishes, our fears, our desires and so forth.”

    Its easy: we have the ability to put filters overlaid in our perception. Works good for finding the right sized logs to make a raft, but is illogical when using filters to search for the ideal (internally). The mind can not evolve. The brain may evolve, but the mind does not. We cant ‘become’ better inwardly.

    Our desires to become better inwardly are the filters overlayed in our perception that cause suffering.

    This is nothing new; ‘Dunning-Kruger effect’, lol.

    Awareness is primary, knowledge is the tracks left behind by it.

    “DAVID DUNNING: We’re not very good at knowing what we don’t know.

    ERROL MORRIS: Knowing what you don’t know? Is this supposedly the hallmark of an intelligent person?

    DAVID DUNNING: That’s absolutely right.”

    Heh, these clowns teach psychology?

    1. “The brain may evolve, but the mind does not.” So the mind has nothing to do with the nervous system? You should write a book about your great discovery!

  10. And if you DO regard yourself as slow or stupid or bad at some kinds of decision-making, what does that say about you?

  11. Also perhaps he is so dumb himself that he doesn’t realise his theory is wrong? I mean he seems fairly confident that its correct right?

    On the other hand I may be too dumb to realise that this is infact not english Im writing in but is infact a garbled mess of random letters since I am infact fully confident in my ability to atleast at some level speak english. Or maybe… this is not my computer at all – its really just my TV and I have an old counter-top register as a keyboard!!!

    Oh my god… we’re through the looking glass here people. Or are you really people at all – random squiggles of line I, in my self-obsessed sense of smug confident, translate as text from others!

    Well its only one way to find out… if I hit random letters and someone responds in some reasonable way it would mean that perhaps… wait… hmmm?

  12. Could it be that some of these comments are proving Dunning right? Hmmm, I don’t wish to come to a conclusion. I could be wrong and then unable to realize it. That would tooootally suck.

  13. Isn’t there kind of an evolutionary advantage to this kind of stupidity though? Sometimes people are too stupid to know an idea will never work and then low and behold it works. Or sometimes they’re to stupid to know they are bad at their job, but they have balls and bravado and so they kind of just bombast their way through life and scrape by through a combination of boorishness and peoplepromoting them up to where they can’t do any harm.

    1. There’s probably a fuzzy area in there somewhere between “too dumb to recognize your own ignorance” and “willful self deception,” which can be useful in some situations.

      There was recently a great episode of Radiolab about the neurology of deception that discussed how the most successful people in certain fields are the ones who can make themselves believe things that their rational minds know are false. Politics is one obvious example, but athletics is a big one too- pit two guys with equal physical stamina against each other and the winner will likely be whoever can convince himself he’s invincible.

  14. When I first read the bank robber story the thing which stood out for me was the question, “Why lemon juice?” What put the idea in his head in the first place? As I was telling the story to my wife, a possible answer struck me.

    Lemon juice dries clear on paper but turns brown when heated over a light bulb or other heat source long before the paper darkens. Invisible ink.

    He put invisible ink on his face…

    I blame Bugs Bunny.

  15. I often notice how much ‘being correct’ consists of being surrounded with others who agree with me. “How could X number of people be wrong?”.

    If I were truly interested in getting things right, I’d push my limits to where I was making some mistakes and gaining some successes.

    I used to say that if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning…. maybe I should have been saying if you’re not *noticing* your mistakes you’re not learning.

  16. It occurs to me that this topic has strong seminal ties to what Jaques Vallee is saying about the internet/crop circles – thank you bardfinn.

  17. I hate to invalidate all the fine words that have been written on this topic, but clearly lemon juice works on Polaroid cameras and doesn’t work on bank cameras. Duh!

  18. I used to call this the American Idol Effect until I learned of the work of Dunning and Kruger. At the beginning of each season of American Idol during the audition portion I have always found it surprising that the really bad singers have no idea just how bad they are. They lack the ability to sing or judge their own singing ability. I agree with some of the other commentors that the American Idol/Dunning-Kruger effect is mostly a failure of introspection and only somewhat a failure of intelligence. Often the two qualities are linked in an individual anyway.

    Dunning and Kruger have done studies in which subjects estimate their score on standardized tests and then take the tests. While some of you may feel the conclusions are obvious theior contribution is to have done some studies to attempt quantify the effect.

    For me the take home lesson from American Idol is to try to figure out those things I think I am good at that I might not be able to judge as well as I think. Intelligent people (all the commentors here of course) fall into this trap because their confidence in one area doesn’t always apply to others in which they have no experience but their self image is one of an intelligent person who knows everything. Less intelligent people aren’t burdened by that world view and are free to make their honest mistakes and smear their faces with lemon juice.

  19. Putting aside the truly dumb, like that bank robber, isn’t the simpler explanation that however rational we CAN be, sometimes our reason is overwhelmed by our emotions. Even the most rational person is affected by advertising, ambient music, mood, hormones, etc. People who write wretched poetry or paint badly, for example, have an emotional need to like their own work. That’s not a matter of intellect.

  20. Isn’t naive realism one of the oldest philosophical frustrations in written human history? Socrates, since the Oracle of Delphi’s statement that nobody was wiser than Sockey, walked around town all day doing one thing: Showing people the fallibility in their perceptions of everything. John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” is at times an outright attack on naive red-faced systematizers.
    Zen Buddhism declares that the fool rejects what he sees, not what he thinks, the wise one rejects what he thinks, not what he sees; and what anybody that has seen enough layers of reality and its interconnected nature grasps is that only when one sees their crushing ignorance in the face of the complexity of the universe does wisdom start to naturally arise. This understanding of naive realism is almost as old as consciousness itself!

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