The Psych Lesson Everyone Should Know

The Mafia, Entrepreneurs & A Clever Experiment

By Josh Wolfe

We’ve all been there. You shake your head with disbelief watching an over-confident friend, or some founder of a startup, get in way over their head doing something way out of their expertise and then, against all odds, they win big.

There’s even a name for this effect.

Professor David Dunning was my Psych professor at Cornell. It was the only class in college I genuinely loved and remember. The effect explains two things.

First: the inability of unskilled people to know they are unskilled, so they overestimate their ability. I think this overconfidence is necessary. Without it not much new stuff would get done. In the face of improbable odds, purely rational people would never try. It is and always has been the irrational and unreasonable people who advance civilization.

Second: the inability of highly skilled people to know they are really skilled, so they underestimate their own ability — and importantly they overestimate others ability. They mistake how easy it should be for others to do what they do. This also explains an overlooked reason why really smart capable founders have reputations for being jerks. They get easily frustrated or angry with early hires because they have high expectations and low tolerance for what they see (unfairly) as incompetence. They may expect too much of others and forget that they may be the best spokesperson, salesman, engineer, coder.

Those are important lessons. But not the best one I learned. Here is the best lesson:

The psych class I took with Professor Dunning was a mix of psychology and criminal law. Here’s the scene: A few weeks at the start of class, 200 of us were sitting in an auditorium and were told we would be having a quick quiz.

One student stands up when class starts, raises his hand to be seen and asks that before we take a quiz, when we will get the results of our last quiz back. While the student is talking, a teaching assistant hands out paper with the quiz on it.

The sound of ruffling paper is loud. Professor Dunning ignores the student asking the question and tells us we will have 10 minutes to complete the quiz.

The student shouts out, “Hey! I asked a question!” He then storms into the aisle and walks to the front of the auditorium, exclaimed “This is BULLS%&*!” He steps right up to Dunning’s face and swipes at a coffee mug on his lectern knocking it over and spilling its contents. He quickly storms out of the exit door.

Everyone is stunned and silent.

The assistant comes rushing down from handing the quizzes to help Dunning. There’s chaos and confused chatter.

Professor Dunning takes a minute. He then turns to everyone and says alarmed and unsettled “What the %*$# was that?” He is really flustered.

Then another pause.

“No, seriously what the $%^& happened? In fact on your quiz paper, tell me exactly what happened. Describe it in full detail.”

When the papers were collected, Dunning read them. Half of the class said the disruptive attacking student was Caucasian, half said he was Latino. Half said he was wearing a blue shirt, some said red, others said purple. Some said he was 5'8" others that he was definitively over 6' tall. Some said he knocked over a soda, others said it was a coffee mug, others a styrofoam cup of water.

We were all there and witnessed the same thing at the same time. And that was the real lesson. The point was witness identification. All of us had certainty. Few of us had accuracy.

Everyone had their own biases that conflated with their own memories and what they saw or thought they saw. But so many of us were so wrong.

This demonstrated the unreliable nature of witness testimony in criminal cases. And the fallibility of our senses. Professor Dunning went on to explain the cold-blooded genius of the Paul Costellano mafia hit by John Gotti henchmen at Sparks Steakhouse in NY. All of the hitmen who shot at Costellano in public outside of the restaurant wore white jackets and black Russian style hats. As a result, nobody remembered anything about their faces, let alone describe the shooters. Only the hats.

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