In the paper by Moore and Healy entitled, “The Trouble with Overconfidence” the authors take a deeper look into some of the inconsistencies in the psychological literature related to the problem of understanding how overconfidence arises and what happens when it does.
They point out that the research has defined overconfidence in 3 different ways:
- As an overestimation of your performance
- As believing that your performance is better than the performance of others
- As a kind of excessive precision in your beliefs.
The first two can show reversals that seem somewhat paradoxical, and are dependent on the type of situation you are in. These look like this:
- When facing a difficult task, you overestimate your own performance and yet will mistakenly believe you did worse than others.
- When facing an easy task, you underestimate your own performance and yet will mistakenly believe you did better than others.
Here are some interesting notes from the paper:
… women dramatically overestimate their chances of contracting breast cancer yet believe they are at less risk than other women (Woloshin et al., 1999). Americans overestimate the risk of being injured in a terrorist attack but believe they are at less risk than other Americans (Lerner et al., 2003). Chinese respondents reported that they were at less risk than their peers for contracting SARS, but they nevertheless overestimated their actual chances of catching the disease (Ji et al., 2004). People overestimate their risk of dying in the coming year (Fischhoff et al., 2006) yet believe they are at less risk of death than their peers (Weinstein, 1980). And most notably, smokers overestimate their chances of getting lung cancer (Viscusi, 1990) but believe they are at less risk than other smokers (Slovic, 2001).
And they have this to say about it:
Our theory can accommodate these findings if people have imperfect information about their own risky behavior and its consequences, but have better information about their own behavior than that of others. Likewise, when it comes to predicting whether they are going to die in the coming year, people tend to overestimate this small probability. Nevertheless, because people have better information for themselves than for others, they overestimate others more than self and consequently believe they are at less risk than others.
They quote Scott Plous on the danger of overconfidence on a practical level:
“No problem in judgment and decision making is more prevalent and more potentially catastrophic than overconfidence” — Scott Plous
While your problems in the gym may not be catastrophic if you fail to reach your goals, overconfidence in a high-skill activity (such as learning how to snatch) will lead you to avoid doing the “Karate Kid” style training required to be really good: focus on mastering the basics.
To quote a paper by Colin Camerer, et al.
“Psychological studies show that most people are overconfident about their own relative abilities, and unreasonably optimistic about their futures… When assessing their position in a distribution of peers on almost any positive trait—like driving ability … income prospects, or longevity—a vast majority of people say they are above the average, although of course, only half can be (if the trait is symmetrically distributed).”
And from a footnote to that paragraph:
“There are interesting exceptions—most people demurely say they are not in the top decile or quintile, but merely above average; for many traits, women are less optimistic than men (and even overly pessimistic; e.g., Eleanor E. Maccoby and Carol N. Jacklin, 1974); and clinically depressed patients are not optimistic (e.g., Lauren B. Alloy and Anthony H. Ahrens, 1987). The latter finding calls into question the common psychiatric presumption that “realistic” people are well adjusted and happy, and also raises the question of whether unrealistic optimism might be evolutionary adaptive (e.g., Lionel Tiger, 1979) or socially beneficial (Giovanni Dosi and Lovallo, 1997). Michael Waldman (1994) shows how such optimism could be evolutionaryily stable, and mentions conditions under which gender differences like those observed empirically could arise.”
While there is a good case to be made that optimism is good, and a healthy faith in yourself is also positively adaptive, there are massive downsides to overconfidence relative to skill-building and/or dangerous situations (like driving).
Now go lift something heavy,