Check Yourself

Overconfidence in one’s predictions, knowledge, or ability can be hazardous, but so can needless self-doubt. What we all need is calibration. In his new book, Perfectly Confident, Don Moore, head of the Moore Accuracy Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, highlights the risks of too high and too low levels of confidence, both at work and in other areas of life, and offers tactics for finding the “middle way.”

Why is it important to play devil’s advocate against yourself?

Human minds are much better at seeking evidence for a favored hypothesis than at seeking evidence against it. It often feels less natural to ask, “Why might I be wrong?” or to take seriously the concerns of critics. Our egos can also get in the way—it feels good to be right. But when the stakes are high, it’s worth challenging those sanctimonious feelings.

You advise guessing the probability of possible outcomes when making choices. Can a non-expert do that?
In most cases, you’re not going to be totally sure about the accuracy of probability forecasts. That’s OK. Even attempting to think through the probabilities is often very useful. It might mean asking your doctor about the likely outcomes of taking a particular medicine or undergoing surgery and how they compare to the outcomes for people who don’t. If you just think through that logically, you are likely to have a better sense of the chances.

How can asking more specific questions help calibrate confidence?

A general question like “How good a driver are you relative to others?” isn’t useful. What aspect of driving? How am I supposed to compare? Getting clear about those sorts of details can organize your thinking. In research on assessment criteria, the more ambiguous the criteria, the more bias you get in people’s responses—they’re more likely to think they’re above average on easy tasks, like driving, and below average on hard tasks, like juggling. If you clarify exactly what they’re assessing, some of those biases are reduced.

Confidence doesn’t always beget success, but when might it play a key role?

My guess is that it plays a role in entry decisions. So, whether people choose to enter a competition is driven by how confident they are in their prospects. Your belief—even if it’s inaccurate—can drive you to enter or stay out. Is it predictive of subsequent success? Only insofar as your confidence is informative of your ability.

 
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