Soulful Sundays: Self-Deception

“The first principle is not to fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool. " -Richard Feynman

"How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again." - Mark Twain

In 1999, David Dunning and Justin Kruger published a landmark study about self-deception. They looked at the differences between college exam grades and the post-exam confidence level of the students taking them. Surprisingly, the students who scored in the lowest quartile exhibited the greatest confidence, and the ones in the upper quartile had the lowest confidence. This cognitive bias was called the Dunning-Kruger Effect and it has been observed across multiple fields and disciplines. Many important insights can be gleaned from this work. We'll explore a few today.

I'm certain that at some point everyone has suffered from overconfidence. A little bit of understanding can be a dangerous thing. It leads us to make assumptions that may not be true and take risks that may not be wise. This is how fortunes are lost, relationships are spoiled, and in extreme cases, lives are imperiled. You wouldn't want your jet pilot to overestimate his abilities, nor your surgeon, would you? Yet, we are drawn to trust confident people. It is hardwired into us as a social species because it is usually a sign of competence. So how do we accurately identify competence without over-conflating confidence? For that we can look to a number of characteristics.

You would think that a strict analysis of performance would be the best metric for trustworthiness. This applies well to events that are discrete, controlled, and repeatable. If you are looking to get your hip replaced, you typically want to go with the surgeon who has done the most number of these sucessfully. But this will only get you so far in the rest of life, which is anything but discrete, controlled, and repeatable. This is where reputation becomes vital.

Using someone's (or something's) reputation as a way to gauge efficacy may sound counterintuitive but it is actually statistically valid. Reputation captures more than just empirical performance, it reflects social trustworthiness. Any culture that uses a traditional moral framework relies heavily on the social importance of honor, and its negative, shame. We live in such a culture, albeit most of us have become estranged from the original architecture. Regardless of how far astray we have become in our moral beliefs, commitment to universal values like patience, work ethic, honesty, kindness, humility, and courage will produce positive reputational capital. There is a certain intangible attractiveness to the moral high ground for a reason. I would highly recommend living by these virtues. It will always create positive outcomes. Likewise, look to associate with people who also live by these values. They are difficult to fake.

As discussed in numerous other posts, we make decisions emotionally first and then justify them logically. We are predisposed to self-deception because emotions can be labile and easily manipulated. Interestingly, in multiple polls, 80% of people routinely say that they are more self-aware than the average person. If you do the math on this it is impossible, and according to Dunning-Kruger, the more confident you are the more likely you are wrong. If we want to learn how to fool ourselves less, we must be willing to make hard choices. We must learn to live with the discomfort of deviating from our usually thought patterns and the possible emotional and social fallout from doing so. We must admit that we are wrong in many areas, that we need help, and that we need far more experience.

Interpretation is the most powerful and contentious part of living a life of limited self-deception. Every person lives inside their own narrative about how and why the world functions the way it does. It is a human universal. In some cases a narrative of overconfidence can be a positive force, bringing with it excitement and motivation to tackle a new and daunting task. In other cases, overconfidence in our narrative can cause us to miss red flags that will bite us later on. My sincere word of advice is to address red flags early and often, as they have a way of growing and distorting. If you see something off, say something. Freedom of speech is a self-correcting system. The short-term risk may seem great, but the long-term result of silence is far more disastrous. As always, be kind to yourself, and know that all great things are built with consistent and patient practice. The world's highest achievers are perhaps the most humble for that reason.