You’re Not as Smart as You Think

By Yvonne Milosevic

Having a healthy level of confidence is a beautiful thing. Overconfidence, on the other hand, can have serious–sometimes life-threatening–consequences. Look no further than the U.S. government’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic to understand how disastrous overconfidence can be.

Unlike those who suffer from Impostor Syndrome, people with overconfidence bias think too highly of themselves. They make poor decisions across a range of situations. They run roughshod over teammates and their suggestions. Waste time and money pursuing an idea doomed to fail. If any of this sounds uncomfortably familiar, don’t worry. You can take steps right now to put things in proper perspective.

UC Berkeley Haas School of Business professor Don Moore specializes in the psychology of decision-making. In his latest book Perfectly Confident: How to Calibrate Your Decisions Wisely, Moore helps readers assess their confidence levels to keep their over-inflated sense of self in line.

In an interview on the Knowledge@Wharton podcast, Moore agrees with host Katherine Milkman that confidence feels good. It’s backed by facts and reality and is empowering.

On the flip side, “it doesn’t feel good to be overconfident,” he says. “And when you realize you’re overconfident, it feels like a mistake. You feel like a fool.”

The students in my class who are most sure they’re going to ace the exam, and therefore don’t study, are not those who get the best grades, says Moore.

To achieve what you want in life, Moore says you need to have realistic expectations about the risks and opportunities that lie ahead. Also, he notes, you must understand the actions you need to take to protect yourself from risks or capitalize on opportunities.

Wanna Bet?

We can better calibrate our confidence by making “probabilistic forecasts” about what will happen in the future, says Moore. Ask yourself, “Do I believe that prediction enough to be willing to bet on it?”

“If another rational, well-informed person is willing to take the other side of the bet, ask yourself what they know that you do not,” Moore advises.

Considering the distribution of possible outcomes and then assessing the likelihood of each is useful for helping us question our assumptions, he explains.

4 Steps to Overcome Overconfidence

In 1999, social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger identified something now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, which happens when people with low ability can overestimate their aptitude.

As Dunning wrote in an op-ed for Politico, “The knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at the task. This includes political judgment.”

Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

Here are Dunning’s quick tips for avoiding the overconfidence trap via this Reddit AMA (“Ask Me Anything”).

  1. Get competent. Always be learning.
  2. Get mentors or a “kitchen cabinet” of people whose opinions you’ve found useful in the past.
  3. Know when the problem is likely to be most common, such as when doing something new.
  4. Be wary of quick and impulsive decisions. People who jump to conclusions are the most prone to overconfident error.

Still have lingering doubts about your levels of overconfidence? Moore’s book includes a test to help determine the accuracy of your own beliefs. (Or, for immediate gratification, you can try this online version posted on Quartz at Work.)

In the end, we should aim for the sweet spot Moore calls “the middle way between having too much and having too little” confidence.

“The middle way enables you to see the truth and understand all that you are capable of, and how to achieve it,” says Moore. “It helps you steer clear of mistakes that can put you at risk for missed opportunities, embarrassment, and pain.”