We often overestimate our abilities, and overestimate the abilities of others who exude confidence. Are we correct in thinking the athlete who radiates confidence must be competent in her/his sport? The salesman who speaks with extensive knowledge and confidence must know what they are talking about, right?
These scenarios are often manifestations of the illusion of confidence.
Confidence is often considered a “true” signal of the extent of one’s memory, knowledge, skill, and ability. However, confidence is often misleading and not congruent with ability. This type of unwarranted confidence leads to “epistemic irrationality,” or more commonly known as simply delusion and self-deception.
The illusion of confidence has two distinct but related aspects. First…it causes us to overestimate our own qualities, especially our abilities relative to other people. Second, …it causes us to interpret the confidence-or lack thereof-that other people express as a valid signal of their own abilities, of the extent of their knowledge, and of the accuracy of their memories (Chabris & Simons, 2009, p.85)
When using group decision processes, people are placed in a group and are asked to come up with a solution to a problem or to make an important decision. Often, someone in the group will be outspoken and confidently suggest solutions more frequently than other members of the group. This confident individual will often assume leadership role, and be seen as the one having the answers.
Being confident and outspoken is often a personality trait, not necessarily a marker of ability. The process of putting individuals in groups and asking them to make decisions almost ensures that the decisions will not be based on independent thinking and judgments. Instead, decisions will be based on group dynamics, personality types and other social factors that have little to do with one’s knowledge or lack thereof (Charbis & Simons, 2009).
Group leaders often become group leaders by strength of personality, not strength of ability. These leaders often exude confidence, which implies to others this person must know what they are talking about.
Courts often place too much weight on witnesses’ confidence levels. Psychologists often agree that the confidence of a witness is not a good indicator of accuracy. “In fact, mistaken eyewitness identifications, and their confident presentation to the jury, are the main cause of over 75 percent of wrongful convictions that are later overturned by DNA evidence” (Chabris & Simons, 2009).
Confidence is an important attribute, but proper calibration is just as important. Society is replete with examples of the negative consequences that follow from the illusion of confidence: finding innocent people guilty of crimes, overestimating one’s ability to drive while texting or talking on cell phone-even though we think others driving do not have these same abilities, buying products from a salesman because he was confident in his sales pitch, uncritically accepting our physician’s recommendations even though they run counter to the evidence, etc.
Chabris, C. & Simons, D. (2009). The Invisible Gorilla: How our Intuitions Deceive Us. New York, NY: Broadway.
Photo by Team Traveller, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.