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Lemon juice and denial

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Lemon juice and denial

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The profession would do better on diversity issues if it wasn’t in denial, as Robert Hunter explains

When McArthur Wheeler walked into Mellon Bank, Swissdale, Philadelphia on 5 January 1995 with a loaded gun in his hand, it was to be the perfect crime. 

It probably didn’t look like one. Standing there without a mask, most criminals in his position would have been worried about being identified on the bank’s CCTV cameras. After all, at 5.6ft tall and weighing in at 270lb, Wheeler was a pretty recognisable guy.

Wheeler wasn’t concerned. He didn’t need a mask. He was a genius. He’d thought of something no bank robber had ever thought of before. He had doused himself with lemon juice. Lemon juice? 

Well, think about it: lemon juice is used to make invisible ink, so Wheeler reasoned that if he covered himself with it, he would be invisible – at least to the CCTV system.

He’d first tested this scientifically by pouring it on his face and taking a polaroid selfie. The photo hadn’t come out. Wheeler didn’t understand exactly why it hadn’t come out, but if his polaroid camera hadn’t worked, nor would the bank’s CCTV film.

Obviously. It was all over very quickly. Within minutes Wheeler had intimidated a terrified bank clerk out of $5,300. Within hours, he was in police custody. He’d been identified from the bank’s CCTV footage. Let’s not get too technical here, but being doused with lemon juice just makes one look a bit, well, wetter.

So what had gone wrong with Wheeler’s selfie photo experiment? Perhaps he’d been mistaken that his selfie was blurred. After all, as a police spokesman pointed out, his eyes were probably full of lemon juice when he checked it. It certainly didn’t look like anyone would be getting a Nobel prize off the back of his botched selfie experiment into the effects of lemon juice.

Actually, two people did. At the same time as Wheeler was contemplating his 22-year prison sentence, 150 miles away David Dunning, a professor at Cornell University was idly leafing through an almanac of newspaper reports. He saw a report of Wheeler’s arrest and showed the story to his graduate student Justin Kruger. They carried out an award-winning series of experiments that address why Wheeler had so overestimated his criminal genius.

They gave students a series of ability tests on matters ranging from logical analytical ability to humour; then asked each to guess their overall mark and their performance compared to others. Those in the top 25 per cent showed a tendency to think they had underperformed, assuming the others found the tests as easy as they had.

Those in the bottom 25 per cent showed a stronger tendency to believe that their performance was above average. Why? Because with some skills, judging is close to doing – you can’t think up a logical argument unless you can recognise one. Poor performers in these skills are doubly cursed. As Dunning and Kruger observed, “their incompetence robs them of their ability to recognise it”.

Have you ever wondered why there is so much sexism but so few people who regard themselves as sexist? Perhaps it’s because they don’t realise they are doing what others would regard as sexist. It’s the same process that people go through when they say: “I’m not a racist but…”. What follows? Usually something racist. 

Nowadays, organisations invest heavily in publicising their diversity and inclusion programmes. How can their organisation discriminate unfairly? They have a diversity policy on their website, employ professional diversity staff and throw money at diversity events.

A great number of City lawyers will speak confidently of their firm’s diversity policies; yet the City obstinately remains an environment where women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities are under-represented in senior roles.

What’s the problem? We have been in denial; and denial is the ‘lemon juice’ of the legal profession. For all the money spent on diversity initiatives, progress on disability issues is shamefully slow and, as a recent survey showed, it’s a major issue throughout the profession. 

Perhaps – like McArthur Wheeler – we would do better if we spent more time wondering if we might have got it wrong.

Robert Hunter is a profoundly deaf solicitor who was a partner of a magic circle firm and worked for 30 years in the City. He is a founder and trustee of City Disabilities citydisabilities.org.uk