Have you ever noticed how great boldness and great incompetence often go hand in hand? Psychologists actually have a name for this! They call it the “Dunning-Kruger Effect.”

The idea is that if we have only a little bit of knowledge or skill in a certain area, we may lack the competence we need to recognize exactly how incompetent we truly are. So, instead of being humble, we’re filled with a false sense of mastery and become bold.

Shakespeare summed up this idea nicely when he wrote, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” That is the heart of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

From the Decision Lab – The Dunning-Kruger effect in graph form: competence vs. confidence

The Dunning-Kruger Effect in Practice

What does the Dunning-Kruger effect look like in practice? It looks like one McArthur Wheeler.

On January 6th, 1995, MacArthur Wheeler strode boldly into a branch of Mellon Bank just outside of Pittsburgh. He sauntered confidently up to the teller and, in broad daylight, fearlessly brandished a semiautomatic pistol and demanded money. After being given about $5,200, he mosied nonchalantly out of the bank, got in his car, went down the road, and held up ANOTHER bank in a similarly brazen manner.

Now, if you and I were to rob a bank – hypothetically, of course! – we would likely wear ski masks to obscure our identities. McArthur Wheeler, however, didn’t wear so much as a yarmulke to try to conceal his identity. So, when the security footage was played on the local news, the police received a call within minutes identifying him.

Surveillance footage of MacArthur Wheeler “at work”

A Little Bit of Knowledge Can Be a Dangerous Thing

Why would McArthur Wheeler act so brashly?

He acted brashly because knew that lemon juice is sometimes used as invisible ink. And knowing just this little factoid about lemon juice, before he entered the bank, McArthur Wheeler rubbed lemon juice all over his face.

In so doing, he believed that his face would be rendered invisible to the security cameras in the bank. He even claims to have successfully practiced this at home rubbing the lemon juice on his face and then taking a selfie with a Polaroid camera.

In any case, he so believed in the camera-defying powers of lemon juice that when the police finally came a knockin,’ he opened his door and said, incredulously, “But I wore the juice.”

MacArthur Wheeler’s favorite comic growing up, probably

The Dunning-Kruger Effect and Us

While it’s easy to poke fun at McArthur Wheeler and his inordinate faith in the power of citrus, it’s much harder to admit that we too succumb to the Dunning-Kruger effect in our own lives.

For instance, if you have your driver’s license, research says you likely consider yourself an above-average driver. Yet, if we all compared our cars, we’d see varying amounts of scratches, dings, and dents. That’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action.

But according to the Epistle of James, nowhere does the Dunning-Kruger effect rear it ugly head in our lives more perniciously than when it comes to the great boldness with which we plan the future:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it commits sin.

In other words, the reason we are so bold about our future, is our incompetence as to the true nature of human life.

Go ahead and laugh at MacArthur Wheeler, but also take a long hard look in the mirror!

Don’t Be Incompetent About Life!

And what pray tell is the true nature of human life?

Well, says James, human life is like mist. Other translations say it’s like vapor. Other translations say it’s like smoke.

But no matter the translation, the idea is that it hangs in the air for just a second, and then *PHEW* it’s gone. The nature of human life is that it is a fleeting kind thing.

What James is driving at is that you can scheme and brag and worry about the future all you want, but you very well may not wake up tomorrow morning!

Human life is like mist, says James. It hangs in the air for just a second, then it’s gone.

What We Can Learn from the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Far from being a cause for despondency, the mist-ness of our lives should have a twofold effect. First, it should make us humble about our future plans. Secondly, it should heighten the importance of the present moment for us.

We may not know what tomorrow holds, but we do know what is right and good today. What’s more, we should have a lot of COMPETENCE in this regard. We believe that God has been telling us the same things for thousands and thousands of years. So much so that James even goes so far as to say that to neglect to do them is to actively sin!

So be humble. If you’re going to be bold about anything, be bold about doing the things God has taught us are good. And for the love of all that’s holy, if life gives you lemons, maybe just stick to making lemonade.