Skip to content

Editor's Note: Know It All?

Once in custody, Wheeler told police that he had no idea how he had been identified. He had been invisible to the surveillance cameras, he insisted, because he had smeared lemon juice over his face. He went on to explain that the lemon juice made his face invisible to surveillance just as lemon juice used as ink is invisible unless exposed to heat. Even after he was confronted with the video evidence, Wheeler remained steadfast that lemon juice does, in fact, thwart surveillance equipment.

The incident drew the attention of Cornell University psychologist David Dunning and his graduate assistant Justin Kruger. The two conducted a study and, in 1999, published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The study revealed that the more incompetent people are at a particular task, the less likely they are to know they are incompetent. This inability to understand the subject matter puts people into a kind of incompetence loop. In a 2014 article for Pacific Standard magazine, titled “We Are All Confident Idiots,” Dunning explained the study’s findings: “In many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are.”

The opposite is also true. Extremely competent people rate themselves as less competent than they actually are. Those people who are merely adequate judge their abilities accurately. This seems to indicate that true experts have a good grasp on what they don’t know. 

The outcome of the study was replicated by researchers in 2006 and 2008, confirming the original findings. However, this phenomenon, known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, is evident to anyone who has worked in offices, participated in political debates, or read an Internet comment board.

Security professionals should be especially wary of the Dunning-Kruger effect when applying their well-oiled security program to facilities in a different country. This month’s cover story gathers the first-hand experience of various practitioners who urge corporate security managers to defer to local expertise when setting up shop in a new location. Being able to admit that the locals know more about the nuances of culture and custom could mean the difference between success and failure.

Dunning urges that even the most skillful take steps to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect. “Seek advice,” he writes. “Other people have their own misbeliefs, but a discussion can often be sufficient to rid a serious person of his or her most egregious misconceptions.”​