Are you sure you're sure?

Sometimes people place excessive confidence in their beliefs. These are not just fringe groups who believe in absurd theories, but smart people make this mistake too. How can we spot it and be better?

Two incidents

The other day I was talking to a friend who invests in the stock market. He mentioned a veteran Indian investor, Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, who predicted during the pandemic that an aggressive bull market (increased stock prices) will follow. He quickly concluded that Rakesh has lost it. The economy was down, we were in midst of a pandemic and perhaps this guy was too old to know what he’s talking about. Boy, was he wrong? India witnessed a bull market, not just some weak bull market but an aggressive one. The steep growth was unlike any growth seen in at least the last 5 years. Look below how rapidly NIFTY50 has grown since the pandemic. My friend was so confident, yet so wrong.


In another incident, two PhD friends — one from Harvard University and another from UMD were sure that they know more about my field than I. It was a laid-back evening. A few of my friends and I were chatting. Everyone was talking about the interesting things they work on ranging from designing new materials that prevent blood clots to managing the UX of a heavily used tech product, to developing new AI computer vision methods. The word DNA naturally came up when I was describing my work, and two of my friends confidently said that DNA is made up of proteins, when, in fact, it’s not. I wasn’t surprised that they were wrong but their excessive confidence in their claim was surprising. I, who happen to be a computational biologist, was unable to bring their misinformed confidence down. Finally, the Wikipedia page on DNA came to my rescue and gave them a reality check.

My friends are not unique. Their thinking is flawed, as is mine and of many others. It happens more often than it should that we place high confidence on our views formed from limited, or worse, no information and come to a hasty conclusion. But why does it happen and how can we overcome it?

Why so sure?

Feeling good about ourselves

Many of our views, judgments, and opinions come from our innate desire to make ourselves look better in our own eyes. It’s a form of self-preservation in one way. When we criticize someone like an expert, we feel superior, better, and proud to some extent. For humans, unless they train themselves to be better, feelings take precedence over rationality. This is where the surety in misinformed views comes from.

Mental laziness

Let’s face it. It’s easy not to think thoroughly. Trying to look beyond the surface and understanding reality better, is work. It’s much easier to think less and form opinions.

Biases in thinking

This is a blind spot that everyone has. We have biases in our thinking that we don’t even see most of the time. For example, take confirmation bias. When presented with something new, we are more likely to believe it if it matches our existing beliefs. If someone told you that a particular politician you dislike has lied, you are likely to believe it without verification. These biases also contribute to this false confidence.

How can we overcome this?

Wanna bet?

Next time you find yourself in a situation where you are confidently claiming something, think if you are willing to bet $1000 (any decent amount for you) on it. If not, what amount can you put on it? This will tell you about the confidence you have in your statement. This also promotes probabilistic thinking and getting away from seeing things as black and white. I can bet $1000 saying the sun will rise tomorrow, but not a particular team winning the final match. I’m not asking to go bet with people, that’s your choice. But you can use betting as a mental tool to evaluate your confidence in your own claims.

Get rid of false security and pride

It is okay to not know. It is okay to not understand. At least within yourself, if not in front of others, you should feel comfortable in accepting that YOU. DO. NOT. KNOW. Or you do not know for sure. Once you start doing that slowly you’ll become more accepting of your lack of knowledge and rather than pursuing comfort originating from false confidence, you’ll see you are gradually moving towards finding the truth.

Be aware of your biases

Start learning about biases in thinking. I would recommend The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli. The more you know about thinking biases, the better you become in catching those in your thinking. And it helps, speaking from experience.

Concluding remarks

My goal isn’t to make you less confident in life. Confidence is important. If you feel confident about your ability to recover from loss, you are more likely to take risks for higher rewards. If you feel confident about your ability to make a U-turn before the traffic comes in, it’s likely that you will not wait as much. Confidence allows you to be bold, to take risks, to go after your goals, and to try your best. This kind of confidence increases the quality of life. The confidence that I talked about in this article is different. It’s coming from limited information and biases. This is the dangerous kind. I want you to be aware of it. When you show confidence in unfounded statements, you are thinking in terms of black and white. Most things in life aren’t black and white.

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