Cautionary Tales – The Dunning Kruger Hijack, and Other Criminally Stupid Acts

26th March, 2021

The height of stupidity is being too stupid to know you are stupid… and it’s more common than you think.

The hijackers of flight 961 wanted its pilot to fly them to Australia – and wouldn’t listen to his pleas that there simply wasn’t enough fuel for the mammoth trip. What would cause them to totally disregard the advice of an expert when the stakes were so very high? The Dunning Kruger effect.

But being too stupid to recognise the limits of your knowledge isn’t confined to such prize idiots – it’s something we are all guilty of at times and has huge implications for society.

Starring Jeffrey Wright (Hunger Games, Westworld, and the Bond films) as Ethiopian Airlines captain Leul Abate.

Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with Andrew Wright. It is produced by Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust.

The sound design and original music is the work of Pascal Wyse. Julia Barton edited the scripts.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Mia Lobel, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostek, Maggie Taylor, Daniella Lakhan and Maya Koenig.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

Further reading and listening

The tale of McArthur Wheeler was reported by M.A Fuoco in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Trial and error: They had larceny in their hearts, but little in their heads” and by William Poundstone. Nigel Blundell’s The World’s Most Daring Vagabonds and Villains is the source of many of the criminal blunders reported in this episode.

Dunning and Kruger’s research is discussed in Brian Resnick “Intellectual Humility” and David Dunning is interviewed on the You Are Not So Smart podcast, episode 36. The original article by Dunning and Kruger is “Unskilled and Unaware of It“.

My description of the Ethiopian Airlines crash is based on numerous contemporary media accounts, the report on, and the official accident report.

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