The Heist and Dunning-Kruger

Another in my sporadic posts… This time, a post about the extraordinary story of McArthur Wheeler who robbed two banks in broad daylight with the most surprising plan for success. This isn’t a new story, but it is certainly one that merits a re-telling.

If you fancy, there is a mildly entertaining video of this post here.

_______

This was the day. This was the moment. The planning had been done and it was rock solid, watertight. The hit would happen twice – Fidelity Savings first, then Mellon Bank – on a Wednesday in central Pittsburgh and it would be undetectable. So solid was the plan that it would even happen in the middle of the day, in broad daylight. It was foolproof.

On the morning of 19th April, 1995, McArthur Wheeler prepared himself as he had planned. He put on slacks and a hoodie, holstered his gun and set out. He walked straight into the first bank with utmost confidence – he went straight up to the teller, gun out, and demanded they hand over whatever money they had.

This is 1995, remember, and CCTV was already in widespread use. Wheeler was not concerned. He knew that he would not be recognised. He was certain he could walk in, rob the bank, and walk out without anyone knowing who he was.

In fact, he was so confident that he did it again. In the second bank he did exactly the same. He just walked straight up to the teller and demanded they hand over the money. He wore no mask, his hood was down, even his shades were on his head, not over his eyes.

But he was absolutely confident he would get away with it. He’d done his research. He had planned for this moment. Two banks robbed, a life-changing amount of money stashed in his bag and McArthur Wheeler’s moment had arrived. This was it. 

And it really was it, only not quite in the way he had envisaged.

Just after midnight, the police came knocking at the door of his house in McKeesport. They had singled him out as the man who had robbed Fidelity Savings and the Mellon Bank. There was CCTV footage clearly showing him and it had been broadcast on the news at 11pm. Within minutes, a tip had come in identifying Wheeler.

Wheeler was utterly stunned. His plan, so carefully thought through, had been foolproof. How had the police found him at all, let alone so quickly? The police told him they had video evidence of him in the act of robbing the banks to which Wheeler responded, ‘But I wore the juice’.

***

There is a curious tendency in humans to overestimate how good they are at things they are bad at. Put another way, when we know a little about something, we tend to think we know a lot.

This cognitive bias was observed by two psychologists named David Dunning and Justin Kruger. They were fascinated by the story of McArthur Wheeler and began to investigate it and similar stories. What, exactly, possessed an apparently normal guy to attempt to rob a bank with no pretence of disguise, no effort at all in preventing himself from being caught?

Wheeler, it turns out, had found the ultimate disguise. Not one that required him to wear special clothing, or cover security cameras, or undertake any skilled task at all.

He had discovered that he could make himself invisible by covering his face with lemon juice.

His incredulity at being caught was genuine. He had, as he said, been wearing the juice. There was no way that his image had been captured.

He had read that if you write on paper with lemon juice, the writing is invisible. The logical conclusion, therefore, was that if he covered his face with lemon juice, then it would also not be visible on an image. 

He tested out the technique by covering his face with lemon juice and taking a picture with a Polaroid camera. The resulting photo – somewhat surprisingly – showed no face at all. For Wheeler, that was all the evidence he needed. At no point did he question the result, or try the experiment again with a different camera. Of course, he wasn’t going to ask anyone else what they thought – his plan was to rob a bank so he couldn’t spread the word…

Wheeler was convinced his plan was foolproof and was completely stunned when he was arrested. It simply never occurred to him that putting lemon juice on his face wouldn’t make him invisible.

***

From a distance, it is easy to laugh at such evident stupidity. Indeed, the Darwin Awards ironically celebrate the regular acts of idiocy that humans are capable of. 

However, it is worth thinking a little more about the effect that fascinated Dunning and Kruger. 

What they saw was someone who massively overestimated his knowledge of an area in which he had limited expertise. With more research, they discovered that we all exhibit this same tendency. For example, 80% of people believe that they are above average drivers. Clearly, this cannot be the case. Similarly, a survey carried out at a software engineering company showed that 42% of the workforce thought they were in the top 5% of performers.

Drilling a little further in, we find that actually the problem is that poor performers or low-skill performers do not have the tools to accurately assess their skill level.

The opposite is also true: that skilled practitioners tend to underestimate how good they are. 

There is, in fact, quite a bit to take from the story of McArthur Wheeler. 

Wheeler only tried one test, one time. His hypothesis was that lemon juice would prevent his image from being recorded, but he only tried it once. For whatever reason, the image didn’t show his face (and we will never know why – incompetence in taking the photograph seems most likely. Wheeler stated that covering his face with lemon juice was extremely painful for his eyes and he could barely see. It is easy to imagine that he simply didn’t point the camera properly.). Instead of being surprised by the result, and trying it again to make sure, Wheeler just accepted the truth of the lemon juice working.

He also never got any feedback on his idea, he never asked for help. He had the idea, tested it out, and was convinced that his test worked well because it confirmed his bias. He didn’t run the idea past anyone, he didn’t look for additional research. He didn’t ask anyone to independently confirm that the effect worked. He just assumed it worked because he wanted it to work.

There is also something to take from the other observation of Dunning and Kruger, that people who exhibit high levels of skill tend to underestimate their ability. This group is constantly looking for new ways to improve, for new information that will push their performance forward. This group is also likely to ask for feedback, likely to try things multiple times, likely to accept failure as an event that gives them information.

***

There is one other thing. This tendency towards thinking we are good at things we are bad at does have a positive effect. It encourages us to try things. We get beginner’s confidence. And that is not something to be dismissed lightly. 

One of the greatest gifts we have as humans is the willingness to explore the unknown. And we should embrace that. Try something new, enjoy the sensations of joy that will often bring.

But, once we have started, understand just what it takes to really improve. Know that good feedback and practice are the backbone of developing real skill. And make as much use as we can of those nearby who are more skilful than you.

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