Saturday, August 4, 2012

"Sure, I'm Sure."

My son and I have a running joke, based on an old Bloom County cartoon.  

In it, the brainy, budding scientist Oliver hacks into the computer system of the Soviet newspaper "Pravda," and creates a false headline. When his friend Milo asks if Oliver got the translation from English to Russian correct, Oliver sounds confident...albeit with slight reservations.

"Sure I'm sure. I'm pretty sure."

Of course, his confidence was misplaced, leading to humorous results and confused Russians.

So anytime I ask my son, "Are you sure?" he automatically responds with the tag line.

Confidence is a strange paradox.

It allows us to take action; to move forward and dare things. A football team that believes in itself plays up to (and maybe beyond) it's capabilities.

As I write, the 2012 London Olympics are underway, and you often hear commentators discussing the confidence (or lack thereof) that athletes display.

Without confidence, we're uncertain about our direction. Tentative. We may even quit in discouragement. Or not even try.

Confidence is good.

Except when it's not.

For all its positive qualities, confidence has its dark side.

Most of us, like Oliver, tend to be more confident than the facts warrant. Studies done in a number of fields (athletic performance, chess skills, intelligence, supervisory prowess, decision-making capability, etc) suggest that human beings tend to consistently overrate their own skills/abilities.

This overconfidence factor seems particularly strong at amateur levels of activity.  For example, studies of serious chess players show that both beginning and advanced players rate themselves as having higher levels of skill than is actually the case. However, the gap between self-judged ability and actual ability is wider for the beginning players.

More advanced players are a little more realistic about their true level of acumen, though they still display what psychologists term a "self-serving bias."  (learn more)

This helps explains why the vast majority of drivers feel they are better drivers than other people.  We can't all be better than the next guy...Yet we believe we are.

It's one thing if you feel you're a better tennis player than you actually are...the only thing liable to get hurt is your pride.

But what about people in positions of power who are confident that an oil rig is safe?  Or confident that the housing bubble will never burst? Or confident that a little ice on the wings of that airplane won't be a problem?

Compounding the issue of overconfidence is the fact that people tend to be attracted to, and impressed by, confidence in others.

On the whole, we praise, applaud, and look up to confident people. And we are more likely to be persuaded by them.

Even when they are dead wrong.

This creates a politics, in business, in academic debate (can you say: "global warming"?) where it is more important to appear confident than to be factually correct.

The term "con man" comes from the word "confidence".... getting people to believe something that isn't true (for money, or status) used to be called "a confidence game."  So con men and impostors can pull of audacious feats by acting with boldness and certainty.

You see, when people act like they know what they're doing...we tend to believe them.  Whether or not it's actually true.

Therein lie the seeds of a lot of woe...

Would you rather be treated by a doctor who seems unsure of herself...tentative and always checking her facts in a book?  Or by a doctor who swiftly and incisively assures you of what's wrong and how to fix it?

Studies show we intuitively place more trust in doctors who appear certain of their own diagnoses, and who speak confidently.  Even though the doctor who double-checks her facts and second-guesses herself may be safer for our health.

It's not an easy paradox to resolve....but it's wise to consider both sides:

Confidence based on proven ability is healthy and productive.

Confidence based on smoke & mirrors can have terrible consequences.