June 2019

The Problem With Confidence

confidence

It is great to have confidence, who wouldn’t want to have it? Having confidence helps us accomplish what others might think is impossible. It also ensures in a way, that we are willing to try things that may fail. In a lot of ways, confidence is an essential piece of achieving something significant or important. All this being true, confidence also comes at a cost, and can often act as a mask.

Of course, this makes sense, when we go to the doctor we want to feel confident in the advice we get. If you went to the doctor, and the doctor was sheepish and unsure, you would ask for a second opinion. For many things, this is the case, we expect experts to be sure of what they are saying; otherwise, we ask someone else. For this reason, confidence has its value, especially when it concerns our health or families, we want to be sure.

We Mistakenly Select For Confidence

The problem is that we often end up selecting for confidence, without even realizing it. When we are looking for answers, we want good ones, and we want the right one. Due to this, we feel like we are getting good answers when the person telling us something is confident. It is often difficult to understand questions, let alone answers, so we often rely on assuredness. This is especially true when we have little knowledge about something. At these times, our only gauge of truth is the confidence of the speaker.

With the internet, there is more information than ever before. This abundance of knowledge makes our choices more difficult. For many topics, we are bombarded with alternative options, but how do we know which one to choose? Because of this, often the quality of the presentation is all that we can work with. Which in many ways, is a show of confidence. Unfortunately, at times this comes at the expense of facts and accuracy. As an example of this, look at advertising which is rarely about facts, rather it is all about image.

Why We Use Confident As Metric

This may explain why we have a problem. For ourselves, we often gain confidence as we learn more about a topic. For this reason, so we associate confidence with practice. In turn, we come to assume that other people act the same way; so they are confident because they have worked hard. From this, we are able to pass on some of our decision making to other people. When we are looking for guidance, we use confidence as a barometer.

This being the case, it is also concerning, as some people are good at confidence. In a sense, they may not be good at anything else, or at least anything that matters. In turn, this means we may give them more faith and power then they deserve. For an example of this, look at Donald Trump, many would say he is incompetent, though I doubt that. Regardless, he has lots of confidence, and that is a big part of the success he has.

In many ways, Trump also serves as an anomaly, as I suspect many people in power are like him, but he is more loud about it. No doubt many are smart and able, but that isn’t what matters, instead, their performance does. And to be clear about the word choice of ‘performance’, I mean in the sense of an actor rather than an athlete. For many reasons, Trump stands out, but most politicians are exactly like him.

Confident Performers Rule The World

Given this proposition, it seems our society is full of people who are confident performers. But that could also mean they don’t have the skills or competence that matters. People can only optimize for a couple of things, so it may become necessary to optimize for performance or confidence over other skills.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that confidence isn’t a skill; it is an important one if you want to be a leader. But at the same time, it isn’t useful once you become a leader, because then you need to make good choices. You could say, that confidence gets people into positions where they can make choices, but it doesn’t help them make those choices. In the end, the choices could be worse, as people with excessive confidence may not have gone through the typical challenges of learning.

In many ways, confidence is a surface thing; and it doesn’t require a deep dive. It doesn’t require expertise; rather it needs the ability to project expertise. For that reason, we get lots of people projecting expertise, but not being experts. Know the saying ‘fake it till you make it’? It is that, but instead of making it, people keep on faking it. So, we have a society filled with fakers. In some ways, this makes sense, with so much information, confidence is a valuable currency.

Confidence On The Internet

As an example of this, on platforms like Medium, long articles get more engagement and upvotes. Because of this, they get more shares and popularity. Which makes me wonder; are these articles popular because they signal confidence, or because they are insightful?

Here is my theory; people have written long, insightful articles and gotten traction. Some other people looking at the stats discovered that longer pieces were getting more engagement. Using that information, they wrote long articles and got a better response. From that, they were rewarded for length rather than content. In a sense, this is like rewarding confidence over substance. No doubt, some of these articles are good, but often they are copywriting that says nothing at all. Part of the reason I’m skeptical, is that most people have a short attention span, so how are they able to read 20 minute long articles?

It comes down to this, showing confidence is a great way to gain trust. But it also depends on people not knowing the facts or the truth of the matter. But this is easy because people often don’t know much about what they are asking experts. In this sense, asking an ‘expert’ opens us up to people willing to exploit us with their confidence. This isn’t like asking a doctor, but rather it is like asking a salesperson.

Confidence In Person

Thinking about this, reminds me of someone I know. He is very loud and confident; his friends look up to him and see him as an authority. But when I’ve had conversations with him, there is rarely substance to what he says. Instead, he is loud and gets the people around him on his side, rather than being honest or factual. In most situations, this works great for him, as he is good at getting people on his side. Obviously, this is more complicated than that, but confidence is an important factor. To be frank, in private conversations, he is more honest and fair, but those types of conversations don’t happen often.

I’d say this is also the case in many different types of situations. Being someone who is shy but opinionated, I find that people who aren’t shy often have the ‘floor.’ With that position, they tend to spread uninformed ideas to the people around them. The people around them don’t know the facts either, so they take the word of the confident person. For this reason, bad ideas often spread because of who is saying them, rather than the substance of the statements.

Confidence Might Not Matter

Now that I’ve spent some time describing the issue, it is time to wind down the conversation. In many ways, our world is run by people with lots of confidence. You could say this is detrimental to all of us, because the best people to make choices aren’t making those choices. But, I’d suggest that in a lot of cases it might not matter.

Consider sales, salespeople sell products, but they can only sell what exists. If they are confident enough to sell something that doesn’t exist, by the time the contract is signed, it will be about something that does exist. That may sound like a scam, and it could be, but it could also be a revision of intent. In other words, buyers follow confidence but settled for what is available.

For another example, look at a CEO. The CEO can be confident and unaware, but this won’t matter as the company is often a machine that functions on its own. In a way, all the important choices have already been made and are part of the process. So, when someone tries to steer the ship in the wrong direction, the boat keeps going where it is headed.

The point, which might not be clear, is that even though unjustified confidence is a problem. In a lot of cases, it doesn’t matter because things are already working. No matter how confident someone is, they still have a considerable battle against ‘the system’ if they want to change it. They can try to change things, but there will often be checks and balances that slow them down. In the end, they may claim to get what they want, but that doesn’t need to be true.

Confidence Is A Mask

Confidence is important, but it is also a powerful mask that hides incompetence. We need to learn to be sure of the things we know and skeptical of what we don’t. At the same time, we need to know that there are bad actors going around doing the opposite. Instead of justified knowledge, they use confidence to hide incompetence. Knowing this gives you some defence against their tactics. But unfortunately, you will always be in a battle with people who aren’t paying attention.

In some ways, the conclusion is silly, know that the world is full of people who pretend to know things but don’t. With this, you can avoid falling for tricks of confidence. Or you could use confidence to your advantage. At the same time, this knowledge can be painful as you can see it, but not do much about it. If you are wise, you may want to learn to accept this and move on from things you can’t change. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t try, fight if you can, but many games aren’t worth playing.

In the end, the most important thing you can do is your own research. Understand as best you can the things you have questions about, and use that knowledge to ask more informed questions. With that, you will find it easier to smoke out hucksters and realize if you are getting tricked by confidence. For bigger things, you can try to spread information first, as people tend to anchor to what they hear first. But even with this, you will be in a battle with many louder voices. So once again I say, some fights are not worth fighting.

If you have any better advice for dealing with this, let me know in the comments below.