Category Archives: heuristics

Beware the Overconfident Innovator

OverconfidenceI want you to imagine that you’ve been working on a string of projects, and they’ve all gone very well. You’re talented, hardworking, and ambitious, and you’re on a roll.

Then, your next assignment comes along. It’s a big challenge like the ones before. You’ve got a tight deadline, a limited budget, and lots of pressure to make it a big success. Then, something bad happens. You were faced with a critical decision. You knew ahead of time that you didn’t have all the information, but you made a decision anyway...and it was dead wrong.

So what happened? Well, you may have been guilty of a cognitive bias called overconfidence.

Overconfidence is the unwarranted faith in one’s intuitive reasoning. We think we are much better at making decisions that we really are. Research has shown that we overestimate our predictive abilities and we overestimate the precision of information that we have about a situation. We’re poorly calibrated in estimating probabilities – we tend to believe something is much more likely to occur than it really is. That’s overconfidence.

Overconfidence happens for different reasons. One is that we oversimplify things. Situations that you face at work are usually much more complex than you realize. If did realize it, you’d be less likely to be so confident about a decision. Another reason is that we don’t account for the role that chance plays in our decisions. Every decision involves some degree of variability. We falsely assume that luck will always be on our side especially after a string of successes. We take excessive risks, and we roll the dice one more time.

Another big source of overconfidence is expertise. If we’re an expert in a particular field, that sense of expertise trickles into other areas of lives. In short, we think that we’re smarter and have better information than we actually do.

Overconfidence is a real problem. When you are too sure that you’ve got it right, you don’t try to improve your understanding of a situation. You don’t check your facts, or get more information. You may not prepare properly for a situation, and that could get you into a sticky situation that you’re is not equipped to handle.

For example, a person might think his sense of direction is much better than it actually is. He goes on a long trip without a map and refuses to ask for directions if he gets lost along the way. He’s suffering from the overconfidence bias.

It can affect you at work. You may think you’re invaluable to your company when in fact almost anyone could do your job. That could affect your work behavior and your attitude with co-workers. Overconfidence might cause you to cut corners or think you’re untouchable and not governed by rules and regulations. That could lead to real trouble.

To avoid the overconfidence bias, keep these pointers in mind:

  • Past success is no guarantee of future success. Treat each new decision as if it were your very first. Just because you had a string of correct decisions has no bearing on the one you face right now.
  • Expertise is no guarantee of future success. As the nobel prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, said, “Overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. They will have to struggle to remind themselves that they may be in the grip of an illusion.”
  • Recheck your facts about a situation. Ask, why are we doing this in the first place? Suspend your initial judgment about a situation and check the validity of your assumptions.
  • Slow down! Look at multiple perspectives and think through the implications and consequences of a belief or an action.
  • Be confident, but not overconfident. The odds are not as good as you think they are, so roll back your sense of certainty.
  • We all have talent and experience, but we can improve our judgment a lot by having a more realistic sense of our cognitive abilities.