Confident But Wrong

Confident, But Wrong

We like confident people. We like people who can tell us something direct and simple to understand while being confident in the statements they make. It makes our job as a receiver easier. We can trust someone with confidence because surely they have thought out what they say, and surely their lack of ambivalence or hesitation means they have solid evidence and a logical coherence to the ideas they are expressing.

 

The problem, however, is that confidence and accuracy are not actually linked. We can be very confident in something that isn’t accurate, true, or correct. What is even worse, it can be hard for us ourselves to recognize when our confidence is misplaced. As Daniel Kahneman writes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “We are often confident even when we are wrong, and an objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are.”

 

We need to surround ourselves with thoughtful people with expertise in important areas where we will be making crucial decisions. We need to collect input from more than one person before we express complete confidence in another person, idea, or prediction. In the real world, this isn’t often possible, but it is something we should at least be aware of.

 

Trusting confident people is a way of answering an easier question in place of a more difficult question. The question might be, should we invest in this mutual fund or that mutual fund, or should we have a totally different investment strategy that doesn’t involve mutual funds. Instead of asking ourselves how we should invest our savings and doing the difficult research to understand the best strategy for ourselves, we switch to a different question and ask, “do I trust the financial advisor giving me the investment advice?” This is an easier question for us to answer. If the advisor sounds smart, has awards on their desk or wall, and exudes confidence, then they are going to appear more trustworthy, and we will believe what they say. They can present us with a lot of confidence, but be totally wrong, and we will likely go with their recommendations anyway.

 

As Kahneman explains, however, outside observers can help us overcome these confidence traps in ourselves and in how we perceive others. If we have a reliable person with knowledge of a certain area, they can help us think through our arguments to determine if we should be as confident as we are. They can help us evaluate the claims of others, to determine whether their confidence is also well deserved or needs more scrutiny. What is important to remember is that we use confidence as a heuristic, and sometimes we can be confident, but wrong with our thoughts and opinions on a given subject.

A Poverty of Understanding

Author Corey Booker reflected on a conversation he had with a mentor of his, Frank Hutchins, in his book United. He goes into detail explaining some of the lessons Frank taught him and some of Frank’s views of the world. One big focus was on a lack of empathy, or shared understanding of each other’s circumstances, and how that impacts the way that we treat each other and approach the world. Describing Frank’s views, Booker wrote,

“What made … negative conditions persist, he believed, was an insidious poverty of understanding, a poverty of empathy. People’s inability to see what is going on in the lives of their fellow citizens, to understand what so many American’s endure, creates an atmosphere that allows injustice to fester and proliferate.”

Our American culture encourages us to think about ourselves before others and to focus on what the things and opportunities of our own before we think about how our choices impact the lives of others. We do not spend a lot of time thinking about the experiences of others and we hold up our own success as evidence of our greatness, proof that we are good people, and as an excuse to ignore those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Frank Hutchins would have argued that we need to listen and spend more time with those around us, in our neighborhood, at our children’s schools, and in our community and those communities near us to better understand the experiences and realities of other people. If we focus only on ourselves, the things we have, and the things we want, then we will never be able to develop a sense of empathy focused on other people and their well being. We will turn away from those in society who truly need help as we explore ways to have and achieve more for ourselves.

A major struggle of our politics today is determining how large a role personal responsibility should play in our success and how much assistance and aid we should receive from other people. When we fail to understand the experiences of others and generalize our experience to the rest of the world we can never reach an honest starting point to sort out the details of the personal responsibility discussion. Our success and our material desires drive us to seek more and seek what other people have, and it becomes tempting to believe that we achieved based on our own merit, and that those who do not enjoy our same comforts somehow lack personal responsibility or an industrious mind. This is the heart of the lack of understanding and empathy that Hutchins described.

Stepping beyond ourselves, our experiences, and our narrow perspectives requires truly interacting with other people and other communities that we often would not see. By putting our material desires and drive for success aside, we can look at other people and actually see them, and begin to think about the advantages we experience, the smart decisions we were able to make as a result, and how other people perhaps never had those advantages. Individually we won’t solve the question of how much personal responsibility plays into each person’s situation, but we will be better able to empathize and understand the realities of the lives of our fellow American’s.