The relativity of mysterious overconfidence
Both doubt and confidence have benefits, but is there anything worthwhile in overconfidence?
It is the season of party conferences in Britain. Over the years I have lived here, my attitude towards them has evolved from interest to irritation, and on to indifference. What has been a constant throughout, though, is the overconfidence the political leaders exhibit at a conference: not a hint of doubt that the proposed policies will be effective, serve everyone and lead to electoral victory.
The conundrum of persistent bad decision-making
Of course, overconfidence is not something that just politicians exhibit. We are all occasionally guilty of being too certain for our own good, discovering later on that the viewpoint we thought was unassailable or the watertight course of action we undertook were not quite that unassailable or watertight as we thought. Overconfidence is a cognitive bias — one of the most pernicious ones, argues Nobel laureate and éminence grise of the behavioural sciences Daniel Kahneman. It is the one, given a magic wand, he would eliminate first. But he entertains no illusions: in the same article, he admits it “is built so deeply into the structure of the mind that you couldn’t change it without changing many other things”. One problem is that overconfidence is widely rewarded: given a choice, audiences generally prefer pundits and commentators who self-assuredly proclaim to know what is going on and what will happen, to colleagues who express more nuanced viewpoints. And naturally the same holds for politicians: you get more votes by being 110% certain (and coming across that way) than by admitting that you’re not entirely sure and that you could be wrong.
Nevertheless doubt — in moderation at least — is a useful cognitive state, in which we have not (or not yet) decided between belief and disbelief. It stops us jumping to conclusions, prevents us picking the first answer to a question or the first solution to a problem that comes to mind, and encourages us to consider multiple potential options…