The Dangers of Overconfidence

beginners mind Apr 02, 2021

I am sure of less today than a year ago. This time has been an extended opportunity to re-evaluate my assumptions. What do I understand about how decisions are made, by my compatriots, by people in power? How much can I rely on my expectations that tomorrow will be like today? Am I living sustainably given the transformations of our times? What do I believe, and believe in? What do I need to learn?

This week is the celebration of fools, and I keep thinking about confidence. Certainly, for many US cultures, confidence is associated with competence, knowledge, and experience. And yet there is evidence -- both in the real world and in the research -- that overconfidence leads to being wrong.

In this study from 2016, researchers asked the participants how confident they were in their answer being correct. The more confident they felt, the poorer the accuracy of their self-assessment. Interestingly, in fMRI scans greater confidence meant greater activation in the striatum, associated with reward processing. This suggests that one reason that confidence can lead to poor decision-making is that it just feels better to believe you're right than to doubt yourself.

But of course, self-help literature notwithstanding, this dynamic has tragic real-world consequences, with examples often given of resultant plane crashes, nuclear disasters, financial meltdowns, and most recently, the catastrophic stranding of the Ever Given, the massive container ship that has clogged global shipping through the Suez Canal, probably for weeks.

So how do we avoid being this fool?

Buddhists have approached this question for millenia, with the idea of the beginner's mind. Shunryu Suzuki teaches, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few."

I've heard variations on this guidance from EEGer clinicians, that asking thoughtful questions is better than thinking we have the answer. We can be a better fool. Whatever tomorrow brings, may you be surrounded by people who are curious, kind, and attentive.

Also, enjoy this old news about a great harvest.


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