Case Study: Preppers Killed by the Dunning-Kruger Effect

by Vern Evans

In today’s world, the appeal of “living off the grid” is strong for many with a yearning for self-reliance. The idea of escaping the hustle and bustle and anxiety causing turmoil of modern life by living a self-reliant lifestyle and connecting with nature is a dream for some. However, as a tragic event in Colorado reveals, the dream can quickly turn into a nightmare for those who are overconfident in their abilities and not adequately prepared and capable. This tragic story is a stark reminder of the deadly dangers of overconfidence caused by the impact of cognitive biases such as the Dunning-Kruger Effect and confirmation bias.

Understanding the Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. It’s named after psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who first identified the phenomenon. In essence, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is when someone knows so little about a topic that they don’t even realize their own incompetence and inadequacies. In effect, they don’t know what they don’t know. 

The irony of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is that as one gains knowledge and becomes more competent, one’s confidence usually decreases from the height of their early overconfidence. This means that the most confident individuals are often the least informed. In other words, with experience comes wisdom—the wisdom to admit to yourself that you don’t know what you don’t know. 

A Tragic Tale from Colorado

This article focuses on the tragic deaths of three individuals, two adults and a 14-year-old boy, who, with little to no experience, decided to live off the grid in the mountains of Colorado. Armed with a small library of self-reliance books and schooled up on preparedness-focused YouTube tutorials, they believed they were ready to face the harshness of Mother Nature dressed as a Colorado winter. 

Unfortunately for the trio, despite believing they were ready to go it alone, they were woefully inexperienced and unprepared. Sadly, due to their unrealistic expectations and overconfidence, their bodies were discovered in a remote campsite, having succumbed to the harsh winter and lack of food. Autopsy reports suggest they died of malnutrition and starvation during the winter, with no food found at their campsite.

The Illusion of Preparedness

The tragic trio had survival books and tarps and even managed to build a lean-to from local logs over a fire pit. And while they had some of the basics figured out, they lacked the practical experience and knowledge required to see them through the winter. This story underscores the difference between genuinely being prepared versus being inexperienced and believing you’re prepared. 

Truly being prepared means knowing enough to realize when you’re in over your head and admitting it. One of the most basic fundamentals of preparedness includes having the humility to honestly ask yourself the hard questions. The hard questions include: 

  • What if I’m wrong?
  • What if I’m only partially correct?
  • Can I do this better? 

With the hard questions asked, the next step is to answer yourself honestly. That means losing the sense of pride attached to wanting to be correct. It includes having the humility and vulnerability to admit your current beliefs may be wrong and have room for improvement. 

When you do that, you can begin to have the confidence to know that you’re overcoming the curse of the Dunning-Kruger Effect and other cognitive biases. It’s those biases that, if allowed to fester and grow, can derail all of our preparedness efforts. It’s those biases that, if allowed to go unchecked, can lead us to a similar fate as those poor souls who wandered into the Colorado mountains believing they had the capability to survive and thrive. 

The Bottom Line on Preppers Killed by the Dunning-Kruger Effect

While preparedness and prepping can be fun, what we are preparing to do has a devastating downside. That downside includes the potential death of ourselves and our loved ones. Therefore, we MUST do our best to keep ourselves in check. We must be realistic in managing our expectations—not only about our developing situation but also our capability to prepare for and respond to that situation.   

One chief aspect of how we prepare to overcome the worst is managing our cognitive biases. That includes doing our best to manage the impact of the Dunning-Kruger Effect and the other cognitive biases that lead to overconfidence, unrealistic expectations, and our potential downfall. We do that by being personally honest with ourselves, asking ourselves the uncomfortable questions, and doing our best to improve our capabilities so that we know when we’re getting in over our heads. 

What are your thoughts on the Dunning-Kruger Effect? Has it ever impacted you? Tell us in the comments below. 


Stay safe,

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