Should You Be So Confident?

Should You Be So Confident?

Are you pretty confident that your diet is a healthy option for your? Are you confident in the outcome of your upcoming job interview? And how confident are you that you will have enough saved for retirement? Whatever your level of confidence, you might want to reconsider whether you should be as confident as you are, or whether you are just telling yourself a narrative that you like and that makes you feel comfortable with the decisions you have made.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes the following about confidence:

 

“Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it. It is wise to take admissions of uncertainty seriously, but declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.”

 

We feel confident in our choices, decisions, and predictions about the future when we can construct a coherent narrative. When we have limited information and experience, it is easy for us to fit that information together in a simplified manner that creates a logical story. The more conflicting and complex information and knowledge we obtain, the more diverse experiences and viewpoints we adopt, the harder it is to construct a simple narrative, and the harder it is for our story about the world to align in a way that makes us confident about anything.

 

A high level of confidence doesn’t represent reality, and it may actually reflect a lack of understanding of reality and all of its complexities. We are confident that our diet is good when we cut out ice cream and cookies, but we don’t really know that we are getting sufficient nutrients for our bodies and our lifestyles. We don’t really know how we perform in a job interview, but if we left feeling that we really connected and remembered to say the things we prepared, then we might be confident that we will land the job. And if we have a good retirement savings program through our job and also contribute to an IRA, we might feel that we are doing enough for retirement and be confident that we will be able to retire at 65, but few of us really do the calculations to ensure we are contributing what we need, and none of us can predict what housing or stock markets will look like as we get closer to retirement. Confidence is necessary for us to function in the world without being paralyzed by fear and never-ending cycles of analysis, but we shouldn’t mistake confidence in ourselves or in other people for actual certainty and knowledge.
Extreme Outcomes

Extreme Outcomes

Large sample sizes are important. At this moment, the world is racing as quickly as possible toward a vaccine to allow us to move forward from the COVID-19 Pandemic. People across the globe are anxious for a way to resume normal life and to reduce the risk of death from the new virus and disease. One thing standing in the way of the super quick solution that everyone wants is basic statistics. For any vaccine or treatment, we need a large sample size to be certain of the effects of anything we offer to people as a cure or for prevention of COVID-19. We want to make sure we don’t make decisions based on extreme outcomes, and that what we produce is safe and effective.

 

Statistics and probability are frequent parts of our lives, and many of us probably feel as though we have a basic and sufficient grasp of both. The reality, however, is that we are often terrible with thinking statistically. We are much better at thinking in narrative, and often we substitute a narrative interpretation for a statistical interpretation of the world without even recognizing it. It is easy to change our behavior based on anecdote and narrative, but not always so easy to change our behavior based on statistics. This is why we have the saying often attributed to Stalin: One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.

 

The danger with anecdotal and narrative interpretations of the world is that they are drawn from small sample sizes. Daniel Kahneman explains the danger of small sample sizes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “extreme outcomes (both high and low) are more likely to be found in small than in large samples. This explanation is not causal.”

 

In his book, Kahneman explains that when you look at counties in the United States with the highest rates of cancer, you find that some of the smallest counties in the nation have the highest rates of cancer. However, if you look at which counties have the lowest rates of cancer, you will also find that it is the smallest counties in the nation that have the lowest rates. While you could drive across the nation looking for explanations to the high and low cancer rates in rural and small counties, you likely wouldn’t find a compelling causal explanation. You might be able to string a narrative together and if you try really hard you might start to see a causal chain, but your interpretation is likely to be biased and based on flimsy evidence. The fact that our small counties are the ones that have the highest and lowest rates of cancer is an artifact of small sample sizes. When you have small sample sizes, as Kahneman explains, you are likely to see more extreme outcomes. A few random chance events can dramatically change the rate of cancer per thousand residents when you only have a few thousand residents in small counties. In larger more populated counties, you find a reversion to the mean, and few extreme chance outcomes outcomes are less likely to influence the overall statistics.

 

To prevent our decision-making from being overly influenced by extreme outcomes we have to move past our narrative and anecdotal thinking. To ensure that a vaccine for the coronavirus or a cure for COVID-19 is safe and effective, we must allow the statistics to play out. We have to have large sample sizes, so that we are not influenced by extreme outcomes, either positive or negative, that we see when a few patients are treated successfully. We need the data to ensure that the outcomes we see are statistically sound, and not an artifact of chance within a small sample.
Narrative Confidence

Narrative Confidence

We like to believe that having more information will make us more confident in our decisions and opinions. The opposite, however, may be true. I have written in the past about a jam study, where participants who selected jam from a sample of a few jams were more happy with their choice than participants who selected jam from a sample of several dozen jam options. More information and more choices seems like it would help make us more happy and make us more confident with our decision, but those who selected jam from the small sample were happier than those who had several dozen jam options.

 

We like simple stories. They are easy for our brain to construct a narrative around and easy for us to have confidence in. The stories we tell ourselves and the conclusions we reach are often simplistic, often built on incomplete information, and often lack the nuance that is necessary to truly reflect reality. Our brains don’t want to work too hard, and don’t want to hold conflicting information that forces an unpleasant compromise. We don’t want to constantly wonder if we made the right choice, if we should do something different, if we need to try another option. We just want to make a decision and have someone tell us it was a good decision, regardless of the actual outcome or impact on our lives, the lives of others, or the planet.

 

Daniel Kahneman writes about this in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. He describes a study (not the jam study) where participants were presented with either one side or two sides of an argument. They had to chose which side they agreed with, and rate their confidence. “Participants who saw one-sided evidence were more confident of their judgments than those who saw both sides,” writes Kahneman, “This is just what you would expect if the confidence that people experience is determined by the coherence of the story they manage to construct from available information. It is the consistency of the information that matters for a good story, not its completeness. Indeed, you will often find that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern.”

 

Learning a lot and truly understanding any given issue is challenging because it means we must build a complex picture of the world. We can’t rely on simple arguments and outlooks on life when we start to get into the weeds of an issue or topic. We will see that admirable people have tragic flaws. We will see that policies which benefit us may exploit others. We will find that things we wish to be true about who we are and the world we live in are only semi-true. Ignorance is bliss in the sense that knowing only a little bit about the world will allow you to paint a picture that makes sense to you, but it won’t be accurate about the world and it won’t acknowledge the negative externalities that the story may create. Simplistic narratives may help us come together as sports fans, or as consumers, or as a nation, but we should all be worried about what happens when we have to accept the inaccuracies of our stories. How we do we weave a complex narrative that will bring people across the world together in a meaningful and peaceful way without driving inequality and negative externalities? That is the challenge of the age, and unfortunately, the better we try to be at accurately depicting the world we inhabit, the less confident any of us will be about the conclusions and decisions for how we should move forward.
System 1 Success

System 1 Success

“The measure of success for System 1 is the coherence of the story it manages to create.”

 

Daniel Kahneman writes that in his book Thinking Fast and Slow when discussing the quick conclusions of our System 1, the mental processing part of our brain that is fast, intuitive, and operates based on simple associations and heuristics.

 

System 1 stitches together a picture of the world and environment around us with incomplete information. It makes assumptions and quick estimates about what we are seeing and compiles a coherent story for us. And what is important for System 1 is that the story be coherent, not that the story be accurate.

 

System 2, the part of our brain which is more rational, calculating, and slower, is the part of the brain that is required for making detailed assessments on the information that System 1 takes in. But normally we don’t activate System 2 unless we really need to. If we judge that System 1 is making coherent connections and associations, then we don’t give it more attention and scrutiny from System 2.

 

It is important that we understand this about our minds. We can go about acting intuitively and believing that our simple narrative is correct, but we risk believing our own thoughts simply because they feel true and coherent to us and in line with our past experiences. Our thoughts will necessarily be inadequate, however, to fully encompass the reality around us. Other people will have different backgrounds, different histories, and different narratives knitted together in their own minds. It’s important that we find a way to engage System 2 when the stakes are high to make more thoughtful considerations than System 1 can generate. Simply because a narrative feels intuitively correct doesn’t mean that it accurately reflects the world around us, or creates a picture of the world that will work within the narrative frameworks that other people create.

The Process of Writing

I listen to lots of podcasts and have a handful of authors whose output I follow fairly closely. Those authors frequently discuss the importance of writing, their process, and what they gain from trying to write each day. One thing is clear from these authors, the process of writing helps with the process of thinking.

 

At the end of his book When Dan Pink writes, “the product or writing – this book – contains more answers than questions. But the process of writing is the opposite. Writing is an act of discovering what you think and what you believe.”

 

I have heard this a lot. That writing is something that helps take nebulous thoughts and organize them together. That writing is not taking the thoughts one already has and putting them down on paper, but that writing pulls disparate pieces that we didn’t always realize we were thinking, and combines them in a logical and coherent manner. We discover through research and close assessment of our mind what we think, and present that to the world.

 

For me, writing is a way to connect with the books that I read. It is a chance for me to revisit them and remember the lessons I learned and think again about the pieces of books that I thought were most important when I originally read them. For me, writing is as much re-discovery as it is discovery. I don’t pretend  that my writing is genuine and unique inspirations from my own mind, but rather reflections on why I found what someone else said to be important.

 

Generally, I believe that Pink is correct. I also think that writing is more than just a discovery of our thoughts, but a creation of our thoughts. Give students an assignment to write from a particular point of view, and even if they previously did not hold such a point of view, afterward they are likely to adopt that point of view. This is not so much idea and belief discovery, but belief formation. Part of our brains are rationalizing the words we put on the page, so to defend ourselves for writing those words. We may create new thoughts through writing just as we may discover thoughts and ideas that had already been bouncing through our mind. What is clear, however, is that writing forces the brain to be more considerate of the ideas that fly through it, and to create narrative and coherence between those ideas, organizing thought in new and more profound ways.

Make Up Your Own Fiction

I am really fascinated by ideas of our personal narratives and how powerful the stories we tell ourselves can be. On some level I think we all understand this, and recently I have been thinking about the power of our narrative within political ideology. The Democratic Party seems to be criticized for creating a narrative where where people are hopeless and can’t make it without a little help. Conversely, the Republican Party seems to operate in a narrative where people can always pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they just try harder. I don’t think either of these simple narratives about how the parties treat people is really accurate, and it is not what I am actually writing about today, just a quick example of how narratives can drive so much of our beliefs and ideas.

 

A quote from Fernando Pessoa in his book The Book of Disquiet translated by Margaret Jull Costa shows the power of narrative, “The truly superior (and the happiest) men are those who, perceiving that everything is a fiction, make up their own novel before someone else does it for them…” What Pessoa is saying is that we can all recognize the power of narratives in our own lives, and create our own stories rather than try to live up to stories that other people have made for us. His ideas in this quote align with a lot of the Stoic ideas and thoughts that I try to live by. His quote acknowledges that we are under pressure from other people to be the person that other people want us to be and to achieve a picture of success created by someone else. Writing our own story, however, gives us the chance to be our own person and to pursue a life on our own terms.

 

“Since life is essentially a mental state and everything we do or think is only as valuable as we think it is, it depends on us for any value that it may have.” A painting is only as valuable as we decide it is. A car is only valuable if we all recognize it as such. Any given activity is only valuable if we decide it is a valuable way to spend our time. There are certainly things we can all recognize as more valuable than others based on the use, form, and function of the thing, but at the end of the day, nothing has inherent value just on its own unless we decide that there is a value attached to it. We should all be aware of the value we place in ourselves, the things in our lives, and how we live so that we can craft a story about who we are that creates meaningful value in our lives and in the lives of others.

Longing for Impossible Things

I currently have Fernando Pessoa’s book The Book of Disquiet (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) on my headboard for a little bit of reading before bed. The book was not published during Pessoa’s lifetime, but was compiled and published after his death. It is a collection of Pessoa’s inner thoughts existing as diary entries, reflections on his life, disjointed feelings, and a set of observations about the world. The book includes incredibly written and translated passages like the following:

 

“The most painful feelings, the most piercing emotions are also the most absurd ones – the longing for impossible things precisely because they are impossible, the nostalgia for what never was, the desire for what might have been, one’s bitterness that one is not someone else, or one’s dissatisfaction with the very existence of the world.”

 

Pessoa is incredibly honest with himself through his writing and he seems to be able to interrogate every emotion and every thought he has. He is so good at it that it painfully tears him apart as he is unable to distinguish between himself, the natural world, the stories he creates of how it all ties together, and his unending awareness of everything inside and outside of himself.

 

His quote above stands out to me because I find such incredible inspiration and power in dreaming of large and almost unattainable things. At the same time, giant and ambitious goals terrify me, and leave me almost paralyzed, too afraid to take action but afraid not to dream. I constantly dream of things could have been different, of the steps and actions I could have taken to truly be on a path toward the greatness I desire, and dissatisfaction seems to lurk around every corner if I look for it. But like Pessoa, I recognize how vain and fruitless this way of thinking can be. There is a fine balance in life between believing in the potential of the future, and being paralyzed between the danger, fear, and monotony of every day life. Understanding how absurd our thinking is and recognizing the fallacies of our stories seems like a way to navigate between our ambitious goals and our defeating self doubt.

 

Greater awareness of who we are and the stories we tell ourselves can help us understand if our goals meaningful enough to make great sacrifices for. Recognizing how our narrative drives us gives us the ability to push back against our self doubt and allows us to craft a new framework that is not as limiting for who we are and who we want to be. We can even get outside the story of our goals and see what small actions we can take to begin to make progress toward our goals, defeating the paralysis we may feel. The recognition of the power of our inner narrative is the one thing that Pessoa seemed to be missing, and it also seems like the one thing that could have helped to change his fear and paralysis.

The Narration Inside Our Heads

We spend so much time inside our heads, thinking about ourselves and what we are doing, feeling, and thinking, that it is easy to imagine that everyone is watching us and thinking about us. We get so caught up in our thoughts about ourselves that we forget that other people probably aren’t paying any attention to us. Most people are probably thinking of themselves the way we are thinking about ourselves. This is a phenomenon that psychologist David Elkind refers to as the Imaginary Audience and author Ryan Holiday writes about it in his book Ego is the Enemy.

 

We constantly have a narrative about the world playing inside our head. We tell ourselves amazing things about who we are, emphasizing the positive traits we see and like in ourselves and comparing ourselves to others in a way that makes us look amazing. At the same time, however, we are likely to have a piece of ourselves that is overly self-critical, telling ourselves that we are not good enough, that we need to prove that we belong, and scaring us into believing that one mistake will reveal to the world that we are not actually as amazing as we make it look. In his book Holiday describes this phenomenon with a quote from the novelist Anne Lamott who describes this part of our ego as if it were a radio station playing in our head 24/7.

 

What is helpful from Holiday’s writing is how he breaks down what is really talking place in a tangled mess inside our mind. Describing all of these thoughts and complex emotions he writes, “Anyone-particularly the ambitious-can fall prey to this narration, good and bad. It is natural for any young, ambitious person (or simply someone whose ambition is young) to get excited and swept up by their thoughts and feelings. Especially in a world that tells us to keep and promote a “personal brand.” We’re required to tell stories in order to sell our work and our talents, and after enough time, forget where the line that separates our fictions from reality.”

 

Our ego buys into the narrative that runs in our mind without question. It loves the thoughts of greatness that we tell ourselves about who we are, but it is constantly acting in fear of losing those stories. Becoming more self-aware and learning that we do not need to constantly build our ego allows us to begin to step back and see the narration inside our heads for what it really is, an incomplete perspective and view of our place in the world. If we can recognize that the stories we tell ourselves are just stories, then we open up the possibilities for us to engage with the world on our own terms, without fear, without a need for self validation, and without the need to be someone that we think will impress everyone else. This allows us to take the small steps and actions that make us feel good and help us to actually accomplish things that matter and make a difference in the world.