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Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence

In an essay in the NYT, Daniel Kahneman adapts part of his new book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow:

The dismal truth about the quality of our predictions had no effect whatsoever on how we evaluated new candidates and very little effect on the confidence we had in our judgments and predictions.

I thought that what was happening to us was remarkable. The statistical evidence of our failure should have shaken our confidence in our judgments of particular candidates, but it did not. It should also have caused us to moderate our predictions, but it did not. We knew as a general fact that our predictions were little better than random guesses, but we continued to feel and act as if each particular prediction was valid. I was reminded of visual illusions, which remain compelling even when you know that what you see is false. I was so struck by the analogy that I coined a term for our experience: the illusion of validity.

I had discovered my first cognitive fallacy.

Decades later, I can see many of the central themes of my thinking about judgment in that old experience. One of these themes is that people who face a difficult question often answer an easier one instead, without realizing it. We were required to predict a soldier’s performance in officer training and in combat, but we did so by evaluating his behavior over one hour in an artificial situation. This was a perfect instance of a general rule that I call WYSIATI, “What you see is all there is.” We had made up a story from the little we knew but had no way to allow for what we did not know about the individual’s future, which was almost everything that would actually matter. When you know as little as we did, you should not make extreme predictions like “He will be a star.” The stars we saw on the obstacle field were most likely accidental flickers, in which a coincidence of random events — like who was near the wall — largely determined who became a leader. Other events — some of them also random — would determine later success in training and combat.

You may be surprised by our failure: it is natural to expect the same leadership ability to manifest itself in various situations. But the exaggerated expectation of consistency is a common error. We are prone to think that the world is more regular and predictable than it really is, because our memory automatically and continuously maintains a story about what is going on, and because the rules of memory tend to make that story as coherent as possible and to suppress alternatives. Fast thinking is not prone to doubt.

The confidence we experience as we make a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that it is right. Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable. The bias toward coherence favors overconfidence. An individual who expresses high confidence probably has a good story, which may or may not be true.

I coined the term “illusion of validity” because the confidence we had in judgments about individual soldiers was not affected by a statistical fact we knew to be true — that our predictions were unrelated to the truth. This is not an isolated observation. When a compelling impression of a particular event clashes with general knowledge, the impression commonly prevails. And this goes for you, too. The confidence you will experience in your future judgments will not be diminished by what you just read, even if you believe every word.

and …

The illusion of skill is not only an individual aberration; it is deeply ingrained in the culture of the industry. Facts that challenge such basic assumptions — and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem — are simply not absorbed. The mind does not digest them. This is particularly true of statistical studies of performance, which provide general facts that people will ignore if they conflict with their personal experience.

and ..

We often interact with professionals who exercise their judgment with evident confidence, sometimes priding themselves on the power of their intuition. In a world rife with illusions of validity and skill, can we trust them? How do we distinguish the justified confidence of experts from the sincere overconfidence of professionals who do not know they are out of their depth? We can believe an expert who admits uncertainty but cannot take expressions of high confidence at face value. As I first learned on the obstacle field, people come up with coherent stories and confident predictions even when they know little or nothing. Overconfidence arises because people are often blind to their own blindness.

True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes. You are probably an expert in guessing your spouse’s mood from one word on the telephone; chess players find a strong move in a single glance at a complex position; and true legends of instant diagnoses are common among physicians. To know whether you can trust a particular intuitive judgment, there are two questions you should ask: Is the environment in which the judgment is made sufficiently regular to enable predictions from the available evidence? The answer is yes for diagnosticians, no for stock pickers. Do the professionals have an adequate opportunity to learn the cues and the regularities? The answer here depends on the professionals’ experience and on the quality and speed with which they discover their mistakes. Anesthesiologists have a better chance to develop intuitions than radiologists do. Many of the professionals we encounter easily pass both tests, and their off-the-cuff judgments deserve to be taken seriously. In general, however, you should not take assertive and confident people at their own evaluation unless you have independent reason to believe that they know what they are talking about. Unfortunately, this advice is difficult to follow: overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.

You should really buy the book.

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