The Illusion of Confidence

Two books I’ve read recently have helped me understand how unreliable our human minds really are.  These books, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, both describe a number of biases, assumptions, and illusions our brains are subject to, all of which have the potential to mislead us in alarming ways.

This is an issue I’ve been interested in ever since a reader left a comment on my blog about resisting the urge to overanalyze and trusting one’s heart/gut instead.  I like the idea of trusting my instincts as much as anyone else, but the more I learn about how faulty our intuitions are, the less I trust them.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot in the last few days about what Chabris and Simons call “The Illusion of Confidence.”  As I understand it, the illusion of confidence has two main components.  The first is that if someone expresses an idea with confidence, people are inclined to believe it.  They give the example of going to a doctor who diagnoses your illness without hesitation, versus going to a doctor who consults a reference book before giving a diagnosis.  Although it’s unreasonable to expect your doctor to know every symptom of every illness off the top of his or her head, people still tend to have more confidence in doctors who seem confident, even though expressing confidence isn’t necessarily a sign of competence.

And this is the truly scary part of the illusion of confidence: As Chabris and Simons state, “Those who are the least skilled are the most likely to think better of themselves than they should – they disproportionately experience the illusion of confidence” (p. 86).  So in other words, the less you know, the more you think you know.  Or the less competent you are, the less likely you are to realize that you are incompetent.  This is referred to as the Dunning-Kruger effect, named after the two researchers who identified this unfortunate phenomenon.  (I need to pause here for just a second to thank Ben, a reader/viewer of this blog, who told me about the Dunning-Kruger effect a few months ago.  I had never heard of it until then.)

Fortunately, those suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect can be cured!  The more you learn, the more you recognize how little you know.  This is why, for example, respected climate scientists never state without a doubt that the world is going to heat up to a certain temperature, because they know that they don’t know everything.  They know way more about climate change than anyone else does, which allows them to recognize the limits of their own knowledge.

I’ve been struggling with the illusion of confidence lately in my own work.  As you may know, I’m writing a dissertation about how social relationships influence musical development.  Although I am supposed to be an expert on the subject by now, the more I learn about musical development, the more clueless I feel.  I know that I know far more about musical development than most people do, but I also know that I do not know everything there is to know.

This presents a real conflict, because I am basically writing a book about the subject and am supposed to be a reliable authority who speaks with confidence and conviction.  However, I want to put a big disclaimer right on the front page that says something like “Please take everything I say with a grain of salt, because when it comes down to it, no one knows what musical development is or how it occurs.  I’ve got some opinions about the subject, which I will gladly share with you, but that’s all they are – my opinions.”

By the way, I do take some comfort in being able to recognize that all these other music education researchers whose studies I’ve been reading about don’t really get it either.  They may state their opinions with great authority and confidence, but that doesn’t mean that they actually know what they’re talking about.

Anyhow, next time someone tells you something with complete confidence, don’t let yourself be fooled.  The people who really know what they are talking about are typically those who recognize that they don’t know what they are talking about.  Whether or not they are honest about that is another issue entirely.

And on that cheery note, thanks for reading and happy learning!

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