Having confidence is indisputably an attribute for success. Actually, after accounting for ability, no other single quality is more influential on mediating performance outcomes than our belief in success to orchestrate desired results (Bandura, 1997). But is having too much confidence a problem? YES, it is!
Some practical examples of being overly confident include arriving late for an appointment because you underestimated your travel time, or overestimated your driving abilities. Perhaps, you are like some people who think they can complete a project quickly, only to wind up missing deadlines, because you ran out of time due to overly optimistic projections. Frequently, over confidence results in minimal exertion during task engagement, under the false belief that a task is easy or can be quickly completed. These common consequences of over-confidence may be damaging to your ego and possibly your reputation, but can be corrected with good planning skills and time management strategies. However, it’s not always that easy.
Over-confidence can have more devastating implications too, just remember what happened after General Custer yelled “Charge” at the battle of Big Horn before many of his troops were massacred, or recall the misinformed ship Captain who proclaimed “it’s only a little ice” after hitting an iceberg that sank the unsinkable Titanic. As we can see, over-confidence can have tragic consequences. Since you likely won’t be engaged in tribal battles or piloting a 1912 cruise ship, instead let’s examine some other practical ramifications of our confidence beliefs.
Each one of us has personal theories about the way the world works. You may have a view of the importance of education, or have beliefs about how humans should treat animals. You even have world views about the proper way to drive. Have you ever been on a road trip, traveling down the lonesome highway when someone zooms past you at 80 mph? How did you react? If you are like some people, you probably have a pet name for that person that sped past you, something unflattering, such as idiot or moron! How about when you are cruising along in the left lane, jamming to your favorite Justin Bieber tune, only to get stuck behind someone driving the speed limit, and much slower than you. You probably have a derogatory name for that person too. So it seems that both faster or slower drivers than you have the potential to provoke negative reactions. In other works, only your speed is the “right” speed, regardless of how fast you are driving!
So what does this have to do with confidence? We usually believe that our opinions, values, and worldviews are justified and appropriate compared to other people, and we are generally pretty darn confident about our perspectives. The average person is quite comfortable with not only their way of driving, but their way of parenting, dressing, speaking, and yes, even their level of motivation and effort devoted to a task. During one of my recent courses on motivation I asked my students to compare their motivation for learning and performance to a highly motivated fictional character. Twenty-six out of twenty-seven students proclaimed their motives were superior and more appropriate than the character! Yes, it boils down to the general impression that we believe our way is best way, which in turn impacts our confidence because we are positively biased about our own skills and abilities.
There are plenty of expressions and terms to describe the psychological phenomena of personal bias that accounts for our preferential thinking. Adjectives such as egotistical and narcissistic quickly come to mind. Motivational scientists call the process of being overly confident about our personal perspectives and demonstrating myopic thinking patterns as demonstrating “myside bias”. The phenomena occurs “when people evaluate evidence, generate evidence, and test hypotheses in a manner biased toward their own prior opinions and attitudes.” (Stanovich, West, & Toplak, 2013, p. 213). Consequences of myside bias predispose us to believe that our “way” is superior. At best, myside bias usually means not being able to see the potential drawbacks of your own personal beliefs and perspectives. In the worst case, bias results in poor decisions because we only seek out evidence that confirms our pre-existing beliefs, clouding our analytical skills and interfering with our ability to solve problems correctly.
So, the problem is clearly identified. But how is myside bias and resulting over-confidence best approached? The first step is to be more aware of when we have biased and potentially flawed thinking, by closely monitoring and reflecting upon our overall thinking process. Instead of making snap conclusions, we can wait and think about our thinking. Second, we should critically evaluate the evidence-gathering process, asking ourselves if we have evaluated ALL available evidence, or only information that supports our position. A third step is openness to alternative conceptions and consideration of opinions that may refute our existing beliefs.
In the end, forestalling over-confidence and myside bias requires accurately calibrating your own abilities, while honestly evaluating task requirements. If we are uncertain about what it takes to complete a task, we should be more conservative in our tasks judgments. Similarly, proper calibration of ability must be demonstrated even when we believe we know a task inside and out. Over calibrating ability may result in exerting limited effort because we think a task is easy. Under calibrating task requirements may result in stress and performance anxiety once we get a clearer picture of what skills are need to successfully complete the task. Anxiety, in turn, zaps precious cognitive resources otherwise devoted towards task requirements. As with most motivational factors, the greater your overall self-awareness, the higher the probability you will be able to overcome the psychological traps described. Realistic and vigilant assessments will ultimately benefit your calibration accuracy and avoid the negative effects of myside bias.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. NY: W.H. Freeman.
Stanovich, K. E., West, R. F., & Toplak, M. E. (2013). Myside bias, rational thinking, and intelligence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(4), 259-264.