Lesson 3.7

Combating Overconfidence

Dive into this topic by via the key explanations and exercises below.


Key Concepts:


Element #2 of intellectual humility is a Lack of Overconfidence.

  • Being NOT overconfident is easier said than done—especially if we are smart and successful.

  • How’s that for irony?

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CONFIDENCE IS A CRUCIAL SKILL for living our best lives. But it can be a double-edged sword.

Too much confidence in our own way of thinking can lead us to close ourselves to alternative ways of thinking. Intellectual overconfidence means we’re not as able to learn.

The brain-science of confidence is tricky, and we’re still learning about it. But what we do know is confidence is associated with rewards. Our brains feel rewarded when we turn out to be right about something. So when we’re confident, our brains get ready to feel good about themselves.

The downside happens when our brains too closely associate being right with feeling good about ourselves. Most of us develop a habit of seeing ourselves as right as much as possible, so we can trigger that mental reward and feel good. And this reward can feel better than the reward our brain gets from feeling like it’s learning and growing—because after all, that can hurt.

Two extremely common things help us become intellectually overconfident:

The first is a bad social habit, the fact that we reward each other for being right. This reinforces the need in our brain to be “right at all costs.”

As Caroline Mehl, the director and lead author of the OpenMind project, points out that, “In many ways, our culture instills in us an aversion to being wrong. Universities reward students who have perfect GPAs and SAT scores, and social media enables us to curate the illusion of living a flawless and failure-free existence.”

We praise kids for getting the correct answers, rather than for exploring and questioning. We promote the employee who suggests the safe idea, rather than the people who push the envelope. (Studies show that people with creative ideas are much less likely to be put into leadership than people with run-of-the-mill ideas.) In politics, we reward the candidates for “winning” the debate, rather than learning and changing their minds in light of the debate.

The second, and trickier thing that leads to intellectual overconfidence is our own success. The more we win at something, the greater the chance that we get stuck in our own ways later when we may need to pivot.

Researchers call this cognitive entrenchment. Dr. Erik Dane of Rice University explains in his seminal paper on the subject:

“As one acquires domain expertise, one loses flexibility with regard to problem solving, adaptation, and creative idea generation.”

In Lesson 1.3 about “The Math of Synergy,” we explored the analogy of “Problem Mountain,” inspired by the work of Complex Systems professor Dr. Scott Page from University of Michigan.

You may remember that the analogy is that any problem in the world can be visualized like a mountain range with lots of peaks of different heights. We can pretend that each peak represents a solution to whatever problem this is. In real life, most problems have several solutions, some better, some worse, and some MUCH better or MUCH worse. Kind of like this:

Research indicates we’re more willing to listen to advice from people from similar demographics to ourselves.

When we’re working on a hard problem, it’s like we’re hiking around the mountain range in the fog. We can’t see all the possible solutions, so we do our best to cobble together the people and information we need to find the best spot. Once we’ve found a mountain peak, we have to figure out whether we’re able to (or whether it’s it’s worth it to) climb down and find a better one.

What often happens is somebody finds a really good solution to the problem, and it’s like they’ve climbed to one of the high peaks on the range:


And then they tell everyone about it, and soon we’ve developed a “best practice” for how to attack this particular problem.

Unfortunately, our success here—and the more we reinforce that this is the best way to tackle this mountain range—makes it less likely that we’ll be able to see other solutions that might be out there. In this case, there might be a better mountain that we don’t see. We can’t think of a different way to explore this range.

Or in another case, pretend we’ve made it all the way to the best peak on the range…

But then an earthquake happens elsewhere, and a bigger peak forms. When we’re entrenched on our own mountain peak, it becomes unlikely that we’ll explore past it and find the new one, because hey—we really nailed the solution last time!

And this is how disruption happens:

People don’t like to admit they’re wrong for several reasons. Among them: it hurts, it lets others off the hook, and it makes us appear weak. But perhaps most of all, we don’t admit we’re wrong because we don’t think we’re wrong. We haven’t allowed for the possibility that we don’t know everything. And one of the best ways to put ourselves in this position is, ironically, to do something that works. To become successful.

Research indicates that simply acknowledging our fallibility helps us to be more open to following arguments wherever they lead, without pre-judging them based on our own knowledge. It primes us to be more humble. But that kind of acknowledgement can be hard in a world where we’re rewarded for being right.


Practice These Rhetorical Habits For Combating Overconfidence:


Habit #1: The Ben Franklin

  • Ben Franklin was often the smartest person in the room, and he knew it. But he was also smart enough to know that he would not always be right, even though he was smarter. So he developed a little trick to help him overcome his overconfidence.

  • Whenever he was about to engage in an argument, he would start by saying something to the effect of, “I could be wrong, but…” and then smash you with his argument. He’d also avoid using any absolutes, like “always” or “certainly” or “never.”

  • In this way, he would avoid putting his debate opponent on personal defense. But even more important, this became a clever way for him to leverage his confidence in a way that still allowed him to learn.

  • After all, if some new argument or bit of information convinced him that he was wrong, Ben could still say he was right. Because remember? In the beginning he said, “I could be wrong.” And it turned out he was right about that!

  • Here’s the habit: Whenever you make a case for something, frame it in terms of your current thinking, and state that you could be wrong or that you’re open to changing your mind. This will put everyone in the conversation in a more collaborative, less defensive place.

  • But make sure that you don’t go too far and project un-confidence. You have very good reasons for thinking what you do, but you’re also strong enough to be willing to change if it’s the right thing. That’s the attitude you want to come across, especially in a room full of overconfident people.

Habit #2: The Hermione Granger

  • Over the last few years, researchers like Carol Dweck have shown the importance of having a “growth mindset,” or believing that we have the ability to get smarter. If we believe that intelligence is fixed, it becomes psychologically painful to admit we’re wrong, because that’s like admitting we’re stupid forever. So we often compensate by doubling down on being right, which leads us to become further cognitively entrenched.

  • There’s a one-word hack that helps us overcome that. It’s a word that I associate with my girl Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series.

  • And that word is: yet.

  • Hermione was a know-it-all. But she was also an avid learner. So, if there was something she didn’t know, she didn’t throw a fit. She would instead decide to learn about it. If she didn’t know something, or happened to be wrong about something, instead of feeling stupid, she would decide that she just had incomplete knowledge. She could say, “I don’t know… yet.”

  • Yet allows us the possibility of changing our minds without feeling bad about ourselves.

  • Here’s the habit: Whenever you’re in a discussion where you can’t fully back up your ideas, or can’t fully change your mind because of lack of satisfying information, say “I don’t know, yet” or “I haven’t decided, yet” or “I don’t have enough information to make that decision, yet.”

  • Add extra emphasis on the “yet” if it helps. :)