The Astonishingly Funny Story of Mr. McArthur Wheeler

By Anupum Pant

In a wonderful paper titled “Unskilled and Unaware of it“, two social psychologists from Cornell University, Justin Kruger and David Dunning share an incredibly funny story of Mr. McArthur Wheeler. Although it is funny, the story actually beautifully demonstrates an excellent concept – a kind of cognitive bias (discussed later in the post). Here is the story:

The Story of Mr. McArthur Wheeler

On one fine morning in Pittsburgh (PA), in the year 1995, a man aged 44, known by the name McArthur Wheeler decided to rob a bank. Since he thought he knew a lot about a peculiar chemical property of lemon juice, he decided to smear the juice on his face before executing his plan to rob the bank.
His logic – As lemon juice can be used to write invisible letters that become visible only when the letter is held close to a heat source, he thought, the same thing would work on his face too. By smearing lemon juice all over his face, he thought that his face would become invisible to the security cameras at the bank. He did not just think that, he was pretty confident about this. He even checked his “trick” by taking a selfie with a polaroid camera. I’m not sure if the film was defective, or the camera wasn’t operated properly, but the camera did give him a blank image. The blank image made him absolutely sure that this trick would work. Or he would not have ever dared to rob a bank with lemon juice on his face.

That day, he went on and robbed not one, but two saving banks in Pittsburgh. A few hours after he had done his job, the police got their hands on the surveillance tape and decided to play it on the 11 O’Clock news. An hour later, an informant identified McArthur in the news video and contacted the police with the man’s name. McArthur got arrested on the same day. Ironically, the same surveillance cameras that he was confident would not be able to capture his face, got him behind the bars. During his interaction with the police, he was incredulous on how his ignorance had failed him.

The Dunning and Kruger effect

Both the psychologists Dunning and Kruger got story of Mr. McArthur. They decided to study it more deeply. The psychologists were interested to study about the utter confidence of Wheeler that made him believe he’d be able to foil the security cameras with lemon juice on his face. He had the confidence, but he clearly wasn’t competent enough…Why was he so sure he’d succeed?

Their study finally demonstrated that the less competent an individual is at a specific task, the more likely they are to inflate their self-appraised competence in relationship to that task. This phenomenon is today known as the Dunning–Kruger effect.

As Charles Darwin rightly said:

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.

Dunning Kruger effect McArthur Wheeler
At zero experience in the x axis it’s not “no nothing”. It’s *Know nothing (There’s a spelling mistake in the image) – ‘On Finch’ mentioned this in comments below.

Indian Idol contestants and the Dunning Kruger Effect

This effect is clearly observed during the auditions of reality shows like Indian idol (etc). The auditions are usually thronged by a variety of good and bad singers. The ones who are bad at it, never realize their incompetence and yet are genuinely disappointed when they get rejected. Often times, they resort to noisy quarrels too.

If you’ve observed carefully, people who aren’t very good at humour or sarcasm often tell poor jokes and expect people around them to laugh hard. But when people don’t laugh, they seem genuinely shocked. It is incredible to see them totally unaware of how bad they are at it.

At every place, it is a common tendency of the least skilled people to have an inflated sense of self-competency.

Ignorance sure is a dangerous thing.

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32 thoughts on “The Astonishingly Funny Story of Mr. McArthur Wheeler”

      1. Just an observation. The graph has the wrong way of spelling ‘know’ in the Dunning Kruger Effect. It says ‘no nothing’.

        Cheers, J

  1. Didn’t know of this effect, Anupam. Nice to learn something new. Thanks for sharing! Imagine wanting to rob with lemon juice on the face 🙂

    1. Thank you! I share one such new story everyday. Keep reading. It is interested readers like you who keep me going. And subscribe from the right sidebar if you don’t want to miss one of these 🙂

  2. What a great read. It aligns well with “The Peter Principle”, which states that a manager will rise to the level of his own incompetence. Up to that point, he does well, because he has the confidence and competence necessary for that job. Once that level is transcended, it’s a different ball game.

    Thanks for the story and commentary. Good stuff.

  3. Is there any correlation with malignant narcissism? My boss, a narcissist, is a good example of both the Duning-Kruger effect and the peter principle.

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  5. I am reminded of a comment I once made while “working” for a State-funded agency in California that was searching for a Motto and a Mission Statement: I proposed, sotto voce, that the organization’s Motto be “We don’t know what we’re doing and don’t know that we don’t know”.

    My proposed Mission Statement was, of course, “But the taxpayers’ money just keeps rolling in anyway”.

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