The world was gloomy before I won – there was no hope. Now the market is up nearly 10% and Christmas spending is over a trillion dollars!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 26, 2016
I would have done even better in the election, if that is possible, if the winner was based on popular vote – but would campaign differently
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 21, 2016
“Subjective confidence in a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that this judgment is correct. 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.” – Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow
Confidence allows us to take on the world, even though the world may not care for us. Confidence allows us to ask the prettiest girl in school for a date. Confidence allows us to identify ourselves as good, moral people even if we sometimes make bad decisions. If we all lacked confidence, would we be willing to go to the moon or stand up for ourselves when being bullied or board a flying machine for the first time? Perhaps not. Confidence has benefits – for ourselves and our society. Overconfidence, however, may lead to bad decisions, misplaced trust and the election of a deranged orange cloud of self-absorption to the Presidency.
How does that work? How do we believe the confident person, even when they are lying to our faces? As the eminent social psychologist Daniel Kahnamen wrote, confidence is a “feeling which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it.” Let’s break that down for a second. If someone expresses confidence in a statement (“I have the best words” for example), that statement reflects that the information provided is clear, concise, makes perfect sense to the speaker. That statement also reflects the cognitive ease of processing it. Cognitive ease is the opposite of cognitive strain. If you are in a feeling of cognitive ease, “you are probably in a good mood, like what you see, believe what you hear, trust your intuitions and feel that the current situation is comfortably familiar,” according to Kahneman. Confidence is a feeling that has little to do with the accuracy of the information provided and has all to do with how comfortable you are with that information. It has to do with the story we tell ourselves. When we have cognitive ease, we are open to believing what we hear – which is usually what we already believe. For example, if I already know I’m a smart man with a huge vocabulary then I can be confident in saying to the world that “I have the best words.” That statement follows with cognitive ease. If I wasn’t confident in my vocabulary or wasn’t feeling confident in who I am, in the story of myself, then saying “I have the best words” would come off not so confidently. In this way, belief comes before proof. If I believe wholeheartedly in my ability to fly a plane, I may be able to convince you to be a passenger on my bi-plane. Whether I have ever flown or not may not matter to my confidence in my abilities.
So if confidence is just a feeling one gets when one has constructed a coherent, familiar story, how does that lead to terrible decisions? First, what’s your story? Trump’s story has been for years that he is a great, successful businessman. We can easily understand how his background can lead him to that coherent, familiar story of himself. He has based his life, his identity as a public figure, on his Trump brand – the greatest business, the greatest casinos, the greatest entertainment, the most gold-plated crap in the world. So how does he go from confidence in his business dealings in real estate (which he may have some basis for) to confidence in Trump steaks or Trump University or Trump cologne or Trump casinos in Atlantic City or Trump the politician (which he may not have any factual basis for)? This gets us to another aspect of the illusion of confidence.
According to psychologist Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, the illusion of confidence “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.” In other words, all of us tend to confuse confidence with accuracy. If someone says something confidently or projects themselves confidently in their mannerisms, our quick intuitions will give us the impression that they are right. If you go to your doctor because you have a sore throat and cough and your doctor looks at you for a second and confidently proclaims, “you have a cold – just get some rest,”, how would you react? I’d probably just agree and feel dumb for going to the doctor because I have a cold. Now, what if you went to the doctor with the same symptoms, but this time your doctor examines you for fifteen minutes, goes out of the room, pulls out of large book on medicine in front of you and meekly says “I think you may just have a cold and you should probably just get some rest.” How would you react? I’d probably leave that doctor’s office directly to get a second opinion. This doctor can’t be right. They had to look up whether I had a cold? We interpret confidence as a measure of whether the judgment is a correct one.
The illusion of confidence is all around us. It shows up when you have to portray yourself as the best candidate in a job interview. It shows up when leaders tell us they know the path forward when you have no clue. It shows up when people lie with gusto. The illusion of confidence shows up in work groups and study groups and social settings everyday.
In my years working in politics, I have worked collaboratively within the organization, with other departments and groups to come up with the best solution for our campaign going forward. I’ve been in meetings with these groups when someone asks a question and we end up bending to the will of one of the people in the group who claims they have the best answer. I’ve wondered if these solutions were the best available or came about through other means. Cameron Anderson and Gavin Kilduff at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business conducted an experiment to test exactly this. They formed small groups of randomly selected students to solve math problems together from the GMAT. Then these groups were monitored through video, audio and subsequent questionnaires from the participants while they attempted to answer these questions. Thru these monitoring devices and asking third party observers, all parties identified the same people in each group as its leader. So who were these leaders? The best mathematicians? The best consensus builders? Actually, what Anderson and Kilduff found was that these leaders were simply the ones with the most dominant personality. How did their dominance effect the groups’ answers on the math test? Well, the dominant personalities tended to be the ones who spoke up first. The groups’ final answers on these math problems were the first answers anyone suggested a whopping 94 percent of the time. This suggested that leaders became those who spoke first because they were the most dominant personalities and that people followed their lead as the first answer almost all of the time. As Chabris and Simons describes this phenomenon: “People with dominant personalities tend to exhibit greater self-confidence, and due to the illusion of confidence, others tend to trust and follow people who speak with confidence.” Remind you of anyone?
How do we brace ourselves against this illusion of confidence? Research suggests that this illusion, among others, will almost always be a part of our daily lives. However, understanding that confidence does not equate with accuracy or honesty does help in softening its negative effect. So the next time Trump or that annoying guy next door loudly proclaims that immigrants are taking all our jobs or that Obama ran up the national debt or that regulation is strangling the economy, remember that their confidence is based on their own story they made up – not our objective reality. Remember that even introducing contradictory evidence may just create other stories they create to deal with cognitive dissonance. Remember not to be fooled by anyone’s confident tone. Be bulwarks against bullshit. Finally, I would suggest taking a deeper examination of your own beliefs to find out what is there. How confident are you in your beliefs? When up against a confident buffoon, the best way to defeat them is to show that the emperor has no clothes – to show that their confidence is a facade – to show confidence in your own story.
Darwin once observed that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” If we fail to fight confident buffoons, we will end up living a world where the dominant personalities reign devoid of truth without regrets.