Thursday, November 13, 2014

Confident Idiots

Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?

Every time comedian George Carlin posed that question in a performance, the audience roared because they knew they were all absolutely guilty of being at least that judgmental when comparing the driving skills of others to their own. Studies have shown that most drivers believe they are more skillful and more careful than the average driver on the road, but what's really fascinating is how that self-serving bias and illusion of superiority extends to many other areas. In his article We Are All Confident Idiots, Psychology professor David Dunning describes it this way:
A whole battery of studies conducted by myself and others have confirmed that people who don't know much about a given set of cognitive, technical or social skills tend to grossly overestimate their prowess and performance, whether it's grammar, emotional intelligence, logical reasoning, firearm care and safety, debating, or financial knowledge.
Surprising? Hardly. You and I have known and worked with a formidable collection of confident idiots, and we've probably played the role ourselves on more than one occasion. We just didn't realize we were doing it.

Professor Dunning is an expert in metacognition, the processes by which humans evaluate and regulate their knowledge, reasoning, and learning. He and his colleague Justin Kruger first described what is now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect in a 1999 paper entitled Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. From the paper's introduction:
People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.
Dunning calls this "unrecognized ignorance". As he explains in the We Are All Confident Idiots article:
For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers—and we are all poor performers at some things—fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack.
While the notion that "we don't know what we don't know" seems reasonable and familiar, the scary part is that even though we might be incompetent to deal with a particular situation, we're not troubled because we are blissfully unaware of our incompetence. Even scarier, we usually feel pretty confident about our chances for dealing with the situation effectively. Dunning again:
What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.
Blessed with inappropriate confidence? As much as we admire and react favorably to confidence and self-assurance, most of us wouldn't rely upon someone to do something important for us if we knew the person was confident, but not competent. Or would we?

Overconfidence is very common. According to a TED Talk by University College (London) professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, who has studied the relationship between confidence and competence for over 10 years in 40 different countries, the distribution looks like this:


To make matters worse, in most parts of the world people equate confidence with competence, so they assume people who are confident are also competent, allowing confidence to mask incompetence. In the HBR Ideacast The Dangers of Confidence , Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic drew the distinction:
In reality however, there is a very big difference between confidence and competence. Competent people are generally confident, but confident people are generally not competent. They are just good at hiding their incompetence and their insecurities...
Yet success "correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence" according to The Confidence Gap by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. And men tend to be more confident than women. A few bullet point takeaways from the article:
  • Having talent isn’t merely about being competent; confidence is a part of that talent. You have to have it to excel.
  • Confidence is... the factor that turns thoughts into judgments about what we are capable of, and that then transforms those judgments into action.
  • In studies, men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both.
  • ... there is a particular crisis for women—a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes.
So if talent (the ability to do something well) requires both confidence and competence, what do you call confidence without competence? Dr. Shahid Qureshi calls it arrogance. Professor Chamorro-Premuzic is in the same camp. In Why Confidence Is Overrated he describes the consequence of appointing leaders on the basis of confidence rather than competence:
...if we keep rewarding those who think highly of themselves, simply because they think highly of themselves, then we will always end up with incompetent charlatans in positions of power and influence.
So why is it that we keep bumping into incompetent charlatans and confident idiots in leadership positions? It's our fault! We like and admire people who are self-assured and confident, and we're not that troubled if they happen to be incompetent. Professor Chamorro-Premuzic in the HBR Ideacast, on why we find confident people so compelling:
I think there are two main reasons. So the first one is that confident people tend to be more charismatic, extroverted, and socially skilled– which in most cultures are highly desirable features. The second one is that in virtually every culture, and especially the Western world, we tend to equate confidence with competence. So we automatically assume that confident people are also more able-skilled or talented.
What can we do about it? Chamorro-Premuzic in Why Confidence is Overrated:
When we hear people making claims about their talents, let's not assume that they are true, even if they are being honest (as a consequence of being self-deceived). Most talented people don't brag about themselves, and most of the self-promoters in the world are simply impostors.
You might be wondering whether talent plays any role in all this. I like to think that while your confidence may help you land a big job, sooner or later you need to perform and deliver in order to keep that job, so it's your talent (ability and results) that will ultimately determine your success. That may be the way it works on American Idol, but of course it doesn't always work out that way in business. Just think of all of the incompetent and feckless executives you've known who succeeded in holding on to key positions for far too long simply because they had a talent for dodging accountability--creating diversions, making excuses, and shifting blame and responsibility to others.

Confident idiots.  I can just imagine Mark Twain scratching his head and marveling at their success as he scrawled this line: "To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence."

Incidentally, if you are wondering about your own level of overconfidence, try this quick self-test.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, CIC is a retired Chief Claims Officer and an expert and advisor on property casualty insurance claims and operations.  He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Twitter.

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