The perils of overconfidence

One way to create publicity for a new book is by posting videos on YouTube that, with any luck, will get shared around. It was suggested to me that my reading a Philosophick Fable or two would not only be quite entertaining but also a neat way of getting people to sample the content. Recording my own voice wouldn’t be difficult; but what about the visual side? I’d need to keep it simple, and not only for cost reasons: the ‘sample’ needed to be true to the experience of reading the book, which meant that I ought to stick as far as possible to the actual content. Fortunately, while making the 75-minute movie ‘The Neuro Files’, I’d learned to be resourceful in the film editor’s art, and so was reasonably confident that I could come up with something passable. It was only natural that I should start with number 1, ‘The Compliant Antelope’, which is featured on the Sample page of this website. Anyone interested in seeing my first effort, posted earlier this week, can take a look at The worst that can happen is that you’ll waste the two minutes it takes to watch it!

I needed to make sure that the idea was ‘campaignable’, as they call it in the advertising world, and so I immediately set about a sequel in exactly the same format. I chose number 12, ‘A Rash Tortoise’, largely because it’s another fable concerning a hazardous crossing. If you watch it now – – what follows won’t spoil the plot for you. It concerns a tortoise who, despite warnings, sets too much store by the fact that he rather resembles a turtle he encounters and therefore ought to be able to swim across a seething torrent; needless to say, he comes a cropper. The psychological concept concerned is called optimism bias: a natural tendency to imagine that things will work out better than is objectively likely. Specifically, individuals overestimate their chances relative to others’, as though they each incline to think themselves a lucky person. Such overconfidence is to be expected from a brain that’s naturally doused in feel-good chemicals that help take away the pain of existence. One can easily see the evolutionary advantage in it. The Darwin Awards may focus on those whose optimism bias has taken them to an untimely death; but, generally speaking, a willingness to take on risky challenges in lieu of inertia is likely to bring a significant overall benefit, especially at the species level.

Once you’re aware of optimism bias, you see it all the time in the news. From building projects to military interventions, politicians routinely overestimate the likelihood that they’ll achieve a well-starred outcome, and disregard cooler heads who advise caution. One of my favourite places for observing optimism bias is the sports world, where both fans and reporters incline strongly to unrealistic expectations of positive results. It’s one major reason why both spend so much time afterwards complaining about performances, player management, and officials. One can in fact inoculate oneself against optimism bias by always asking oneself a simple question: if I wanted this project to fail, what would my forecast be then? Looking at the probable result of a match through the eyes of a rival fan very easily turns likely victory into likely defeat, and certainly cushions the blow when that comes to pass. Similar realism among decision-takers wouldn’t hurt in projects that cost the public millions, or billions.

The most epoch-making exponent of optimism bias was Adolf Hitler, who in all his military escapades had such an unshakeable belief in his own talent that he considered his personal success to be manifest destiny. Such was his assertiveness that he got away with it time after time, but fatefully bit off far more than he could chew by invading and seeking to destroy the Soviet Union. Looking back at the history of WW2, and in particular Hitler’s inclination to rate his own judgement far higher than that of his ablest generals, it’s plain that he was also a prime example of the inverse proportionality between self-regard and actual ability: the so-called ‘Dunning-Kruger effect’, whereby the least capable people rate their own talents most highly. But that is literally another story…






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