“I am sure we will find solutions.”
“Technology will solve the issue.”
“We, humans, always find a way.”
When it comes to environmental issues, you’ve probably seen or heard these statements directly from some people to justify inactions or keeping business as usual. Truth is that these statements are due to overconfidence.
Overconfidence bias is a tendency to hold a false and misleading assessment of our skills, intellect, or talent. In short, it's an egotistical belief that we're better than we actually are.
Overconfidence is one of the most powerful cognitive biases because it is so ubiquitous, and causes us to make important judgements and decisions without a sensible degree of consideration.
This bias can be categorized as follow:
Over estimation: overconfidence focuses on the certainty one feels in their own ability, performance, level of control, or chance of success.
Over precision: overconfidence in the accuracy of our judgment.
Over ranking: when someone rates their own personal performance as higher than it actually is.
Because we tend to overestimate our capabilities, the chances of our judgements to be wrong are high even when we mostly believe they are right.
Confidence is arguably one of the most highly rated leadership virtues. But too much of it can be catastrophic, particularly when it comes to judgment and decision-making.
I) Why overconfidence is catastrophic for the environmental crisis response
The problem with overconfidence in the case of environmental issues? Kind of obvious. It leads certain people to be too optimistic. They would believe the environmental challenges will be somehow solved at some point by someone, something, somewhere. A magic trick!
As a result, they don’t involve themselves in the process. “Someone will take care of it so why bother.” This justifies inaction and not taking responsibility.
This is the kind of optimism that leads governments to believe that wars are quickly winnable and capital projects will come in on budget despite statistics predicting exactly the opposite.
Nobel Prize D.Kahneman even says that it is the bias he would most like to eliminate if he had a magic wand. But it “is built so deeply into the structure of the mind that you couldn’t change it without changing many other things”.
2) Why valorising overconfidence is a mistake rooted in our brain system
We can’t deny it…we like and want overconfidence
Our brains are hardwired to look for shortcuts, which sends us off looking for proxies that are indicative of expertise. Overconfidence is one of them, that’s why we like it.
Overconfident people attain higher social status and are viewed as more competent, allowing them to reap the reputational benefits. "Confidence makes individuals appear more competent in the eyes of others, even when that confidence is unjustified and unwarranted," says Cameron Anderson from the Haas School of Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
A) Overconfidence gives us the signal that it’s safe to mimic a behaviour
If you read the first article about the status quo bias, you already know that we tend to avoid taking decisions with our judgement as it requires the brain to use up precious energy. One of the most efficient ways for us to decide without having our brain to focus attention is to mimic our peers’ behaviours.
The more the messenger seems assertive and confident, the more we’d believe that he/she is making a reliable informed decision. We are constantly looking for this signal.
B) Overconfidence removes the unwanted feeling of uncertainty
According to psychologist and author, Maria Konnikova, "Human beings don't like to exist in a state of uncertainty and ambiguity."Confident people give off an air of assurance and certitude and are perceived as being competent which makes us an easy target to influence. In fact, emerging research has identified a particular area in the brain that responds to confidence, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), an area involved in emotional regulation.
If our leaders weren’t showing that confidence, we would likely switch to other leaders.
The risk is those overconfident people who don’t believe that action needs to be taken to mitigate environmental issues influence others to keep the status quo.
Fortunately, there are some strategies you can use to reduce the overconfidence of individuals in the context of environmental issues.
3) How to change overconfident people’s mind
We are emotionally, mentally and biologically wired to respond to confidence. In an attend to change someone overconfident opinion, the reaction needs to be triggered from within.
One strategy I’d recommend is to conduct a “pre-mortem” strategy.
Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the “patient” has already died, and so asks what did go wrong.
In our case, we would assume that our planet has already suffered irreversible damages and that the human race is now on the brink of extinction.
From this assumption, ask the person you are trying to convince to guess and list what could have gone wrong.
Research has found that overconfidence is reduced after asking people to list arguments that contradict the reasoning that led to their initial believe.
Because the mechanism for overconfidence is the fact that people only look at information or reasons that support their judgment, not for reasons that oppose it. By physically instructing them to come up with the reasons that oppose a judgment, you de-bias that particular judgment.
Overconfidence can be a great asset in some context. It can be used as a catalyser of positivity to keep fighting against the biggest environmental and social challenges of our era. It has proven to help believers to become overachievers.
However, overconfidence can also be catastrophic when leading to status quo and lack of responsible engagement.
Forces are from both sides of the spectrum. Those who would learn how to use confidence as a tool to influence will have a consequent advantage.
So next time, you’ll be facing frictions with a parent, a friend, or even your boss, who would be confident that things will be solved, I hope this article will be helpful to form your response.
In this context, we all, as believers, should learn in-depth, act wisely and nudge for good.
Questions? Thoughts? Get in touch — I’d love to hear them!
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Koriat, A., Lichtenstein, S., & Fischhoff, B. (1980). Reasons for confidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 6(2), 107–11