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Why did a very bad liar think he was a good one? Chris Watts and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

At 02:57 in the clip below, right at the beginning of the interview that preceded the polygraph, Colorado Bureau of Investigation Agent Tammy Lee tells Chris Watts:

“You know if you did have something to do with their disappearance, it would be really stupid for you to come in and take a polygraph. [Laughs]. It would be really dumb.”

And so Chris Watts takes the polygraph, fails, and then goes on to confess largely because of the failed test.

There’s no doubt stupidity does play into the criminal psychology [and psychopathy] here, just as it did in the Scott Peterson case. And probably, elements of vanity and narcissism exacerbate [or inflate] this self-perceived sense of mastery [over others and one’s world].

But there has to be another aspect that accounts for the incredible poor levels of intuition going on here. Does being dumb lead to poor perception skills, or do poor perception skills drive dumbness?

Here’s a clue, and it’s one than can impact all of us.

What the Dunning Kruger effect suggests is the less we know, the more we think we know and tend to over-estimate our chances. On the other hand, the more we know, the more modest we tend to be about what we think we know.

In a criminal case, a criminal – like Chris Watts or Scott Peterson – may believe they know a great deal more about their crime than anyone else. Further, especially if there is premeditation and an extensive and elaborate effort to dispose of evidence [and the human remains], this sense of overconfidence is likely to be exaggerated.

It helps, in these circumstances, for the cops to play dumb, and to not reveal what they know. In both the Chris Watts and Scott Peterson cases, the cops knew about the affairs some time before the criminals knew that the cops knew.

But there’s another dimension to the criminal psychology that goes beyond all of this. It’s like the coldness of a psychopath but it’s not quite the same thing. Any person can become numb or unfeeling to someone else after a season of lying, duplicity and deceit. This behavior creates disconnection, and the murder is the final leg of that journey. It’s the final disconnect. In order to get to that place, the murderer becomes “standoffish” not only towards his intended victim, but to many others [close to the victim] as well.

In effect, the murderer is preparing himself for what would otherwise be a somewhat traumatic event. Murder can be traumatic. But if the murderer is sufficiently imbued with a sense of self, and a disconnected sense of self, then it’s less difficult. Of course, following the murder, this disconnectedness is what the world sees and sees immediately something is very wrong [because this person close to the victim doesn’t show the right emotion – because he’s disconnected himself…]

At 13:30 in the clip below, Forensic Psychologist Dr. Keith Ablow describes the mental process behind Scott Peterson’s less than credible acting.

ABLOW: I think Scott Peterson knows he is putting things over on people, or attempting to. The trouble is, because he can’t connect – he can’t feel your emotions, or his own [in terms of Laci] – he’s in a very tough spot as to lying effectively. But Scott Peterson thinks he’s very resourceful. No doubt he thinks people believe him when they don’t at all. 


  1. Liz

    Wow, the last 5 minutes of the Laci and Scott Peterson video brings us right to Chris Watts. Interesting fact and it has probably been mentioned is that Chris is imprisoned at the same facility as Chris Coleman, another family annihilator. I’m wondering how many family annihilators are housed at the Dodge Correctional Institution.

  2. Diana

    We definitely see the “disconnectedness” Chris exhibited towards Shan’ann in the weeks prior to the murders, followed by his fake – “I’ll make everything right attitude”, his willingness for marriage counseling and agreeing to a weekend in Aspen with Shan’ann. What we really can’t gauge is how much he disconnects from his kids in order to murder them.

    “…..the more we know, the more modest we tend to be about what we think we know.” This reminds me of my favorite saying that I invoke quite often – “I’m smart enough to know how dumb I am.” Perhaps if Chris had that view he wouldn’t be where he is today. His family would be alive and he would be seeking a divorce.

    • Mustang Sally

      …or he would have agreed to the couples therapy where they both may have found answers to questions that needed to be asked, answered, and acknowledged with appropriate changes in their lifestyle, behavior, or whatever else was necessary to get back on track.

      Murder, of course, wasn’t the answer for obvious reasons, but divorce wasn’t necessarily the answer either. They would have both just gone on repeating the same behaviors that allowed Shan’ann to be too controlling and Chris to become disconnected among whatever else was leading them astray.

      This page/forum is fascinating to me. It’s as much about Chris Watts, his family, and the people directly affected, as it is about each and every one of us. Not by comparison necessarily, but by the reality we are all flawed individuals with something to learn, something to teach, something to give, something to share, something we need to hear, something we need to see, something we need to feel, and something we may need to say…and it all goes well beyond simple touch, sight, and sound.

      Bravery is not just in truth and authenticity, it’s also in awakening yourself to the possibilities of what may be revealed through this raw exposure. I realize the quieter I get, the more forgotten I become, yet as I learn more during my silence, I do lose the ability to express myself well in the quietude.

      Hopefully, someone gets what I’m trying to say. 😊

      • ganana

        I get it and thanks.

    • Steve Taylor

      Exactly. If watts watched just a few episodes of forensic files, Dateline or any crime show, he’d know how there are cameras everywhere and insane amounts of science now available to investigators. Even a single episode of SVU might have let him know he will be convicted or always be the prime suspect , so it’s not a good idea. I think he might actually be dimmer than the average person.

  3. Sylvester

    Peterson and Watts have alot in common and one thing that seems to be predominant is the ability to “fake it” – fake emotions, and sell their mates on who they think their mates want them to be. In Peterson’s interview when asked why he got together with Laci or what we might want to know about her he says they were able to “complete each other.” This is a line right out of Jerry McGuire – and when Jerry McGuire said it didn’t it help him get the girl? As for Chris he presented himself as a rock for Shan’ann, who needed someone to give her a sense of security and stability she craved. Both guys were able to mirror back what they felt was needed and wanted. But Dr. Ablow debunks Scott Peterson when he says “they never did connect.” I think the same might be said of Chris and Shan’ann. Whether there is something missing in both men that doesn’t allow for them to ever really connect, is something we can only guess at, but what was more to the point was I don’t think Laci or Shan’ann knew how to detect it.

    • Sally D.

      Sylvester, I’m really glad you mentioned the line from ‘Jerry McGuire’ — such an over used line and every time I hear someone say it, I wonder if they even know it’s from the movie. Somehow, ‘show me the money’ works better!

      • EllTee

        “Show me the money!” certainly fits this case in many ways.

        Not for nothing, but Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s performance made that movie! Everyone was great, but he shone brightly.

    • ganana

      On one of the greeting cards Chris wrote that he was “addicted” in the relationship. If he was needy and vulnerable, growing more desperate about the debt, tired of the boundary violations –he could have been in a frame of mind that saw murder as a quick end to his pain. I feel that what we know is the tip of the iceberg and that the real story is hidden from our view. I find it hard to wrap my mind around the idea that he cooked up this plan all by himself, with no input from anywhere.

  4. Diana

    Mustang Sally I agree couple’s counseling would’ve possibly provided needed answers to enable Chris and Shan’ann to examine certain behaviors as well as why they engaged in those behaviors. Had Chris not murdered his family though, I just think divorce was the ONLY other remedy he could’ve seen besides murder, unless Shan’ann chose to look the other way as far as him seeing NK but, I doubt that would’ve happened. I also agree that both of them would’ve continued the same pattern of behavior. Shan’ann would’ve continued overspending and being the bossy type. And Chris? Lets just say that the “new car” smell that lured Chris to NK would’ve eventually wore off. I have a feeling Chris would’ve wound up with nothing more than a new boss, then he would’ve went on the hunt – again!

  5. Fredgon

    Eerie how similar these two men appear to be in their interviews. I enjoy watching how these killers can try to sit there and feel convinced that the audience buys what they’re saying. Peterson displayed way less nervousness or none that I can see. He clearly looks disinterested and like Watts not really willing to talk about the missing wife beyond a simple answer. You can see the rehearsed spiel in both their answers. Watts kept recalling the same phrases throughout various interviews. The Dr made an interesting comment about how Peterson most likely was excited, a weight of relief off his shoulders as he drove his boat back. The same has to be for Watts. I don’t believe one tear was shed or a moment of clarity for what he had done. It was most likely what apartment he was going to look at, what vacation he and NK would take, etc. Thats equal parts fascinating and spine chilling that a normal human could function that way after annihilating his family. I look forward to reading more great posts and comments!

    • ganana

      Agree. I wonder if he was always so numbed out and lacking any feeling or depth.

    • mitzi2006

      Him scoffing down all that pizza while looking at his dead family was another spine chilling moment for me. Total lack of any emotion or guilt for what he’d just done

  6. Kathleen

    As curious as I am about what drove Chris to change from passive, subservient super husband and dad to adulter and murderer, I am even more fascinated by what was going on with Shan’ann. When she was desperately trying to get Chris to talk and figure out what was going on with him and sort of begging him to love her, she was concurrently bitching about his parents. I mean seriously bitching about them, refusing to let them see the kids even with Chris present, demanding Chris confront them. Repeatedly. Harshly. I think most of us know going after the in-laws is an unlikely win? I wonder if she had been able to let that go, go with him and her girls to see them, if it would have had any impact on her and her kids’ fate? Obviously, his solution was beyond dumb, and pure evil. But was that freight train of debt, rejected parents, illicit sex, and previously passive aggression stoppable? Probably not. That family was headed for a fall.

    • Fredgon

      Very good points Kathleen. We’ve all seen the videos and at least the on camera dynamic between SW and CW. It’s evident who was in charge in that household. I wonder how their relationship evolved through the years. Related to that topic, I did recently see the video with his parents and the Watts’ and kids all walking downtown. I gotta say for a 7-10 min pretty unremarkable video there is a boulder sized amount of tension. His mom in particular is oozing all sorts of negative vibes, no doubt in my mind due or directed at SW. For as many dozens of videos there is of their relationship I wish we knew more how it really was behind closed doors. Was SW even more overbearing and demanding of him? Or was CW somehow more vocal and able to stand his ground if he felt the need?

  7. Sylvester

    I don’t think he was ever able to stand his ground because I believe his ground was built on shifting sand. But if Two Face flips a coin and manipulates the courts to allow him to appeal his conviction, then we could see a sequel to Oblivion.

  8. Polin

    He is not a psycho, according to the psychoanalytic theory of Zigmund Freud, superEgo is our conscience that we develop during our life , but the seed is planted during our childhood living and interacting with patents …. It happened somehow that NK skyrocketed his ego and developed the unhealthy narcissistic traits … suddenly he started perceiving himself as a super guy that deserves this splendid carnal life with a woman that become kinda an authority for him – young , successful, voluptuous, fit …He could do anything just to rejoin her , it deprived him empathy, logic and simply the sense of self-preservation.

  9. Sideaffected

    Yes, I remember studying this. People who are ok at something think they’re AWESOME and experts think they’re pretty good but not the best by any means. Fascinating to apply it to murder. Chris is more interesting to me because he is so much less bold-I can’t picture him calling NK and being like “heeeeyyy I’m in Paris, with Pierre! At the Eiffel Tower he says bonjour!” He’s more subtle. What I wonder is-was he always a liar? We really have evidence of him lying to cover an affair and a murder but not the pathological lying of Scott and Casey Anthony. His behavior does imply though that he’s confident despite being a murdering amateur-is he a lying amateur as well or has he always been this way ?

    Many people presume the affair “made” him lose empathy for his family. Caused the disconnection you speak of. I firmly believe that is impossible-she was a trigger but far from the cause or root of the issue and more a symptom of it. A brief affair cannot change your entire personality and make you stop loving your kids. It wasn’t there.

    The BEST example of what you’re describing by far is Diane Downs. Possibly the most inappropriate acting and least self- aware person I’ve ever studied. Her car re-enactments and interviews make CW look like a Broadway actor. She reportedly has a high iq, I believe over 120. But her crime is so ridiculous and she’s so flippant that she appears like an idiot. I think poor perceptual and intuitive skills make these otherwise intelligent people appear dumb rather than the other way around. Certainly this makes these criminal virgins think they won’t be caught when they were all suspects the day of.

    A worrying thought is what my friend described as lack of “information literacy”. I basically asked him: are people devolving? Scott (and Michael) Peterson have HUGE supporters who genuinely think they’re innocent. Endless debates. Scott was framed. Thousands upon thousands are campaigning for his innocence. I mean, look at the case for 5 minutes. What is going on???

    • Laura Thompson

      Nice comparison with Dianne Downs! Good catch.

      Does her creepy interview smile remind anyone else of that one Scott Peterson gave during his own interview, or the duping delight grinning of Watts during his Sermon On The Porch? Those facial expressions are examples of how oblivious these people are as to how their narrative is being perceived by others.

  10. Joe

    Yes this is Dunning Kruger effect in full effect. Chris is a a very dumb person and there are many examples of this based on his actions. Yet in one video he brags that he thinks he has a 140 IQ! Haha I guarantee it is nowhere close to that. Just more lies from a serial liar and very unintelligent human.

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