On Overconfidence

The Guardian asked one of the most prolific psychologists of our time what he would like to eliminate from the human psyche, and his answer was quite interesting: Overconfidence.

After reading Kahneman's book, Thinking Fast and Slow, it’s easy to see how he might be very skeptical of human confidence. His book is focused on outlining the way our brains work, and he explains the various biases, fallacies, and effects to which our minds are susceptible. He puts experimental findings in context with real situations. The book incited a lot of introspection in me about my own follies in decisions. It’s somewhat unnerving–that your own mind could be ‘tricking’ you into thinking something that is against what you hold true. 

Kanheman defines 2 major thinking-process the brain does, which he coined System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the instinctive, immediate process, and System 2 is the slower, more rational process. Both have their limitations and strengths as systems and contribute both to ingenuity and stupidity. It tells us something deeper about our psyche; we make quick judgements that are affected by unknown factors and can see rationality in a completely different way depending on how our brain processes the situation.

I finished the book early last year, and there are many of its insights that I often think about. One impactful section of the book explains regression to the mean, a statistical concept for judging human performance. The concept goes that measures of performance are subject to luck, and more extreme measures–like a particularly good or particularly poor performance–are likely to fall back to an average level. This calls into question the causality of the performance–that it was a human act of genius or a great folly. But, it really could have been that the conditions affected the outcome more than human involvement. 

This has always been an interesting concept to me–that we place too much importance on human involvement (in some cases), and attribute good and bad events to a measure of performance. I know I’m not thinking about regression to the mean when the feature I just designed performs extremely well. I want and need to believe that it was apart of calculated decisions that I made. Good thing my boss isn’t so aware of it either.

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers explore a lot about how luck shapes our lives and our world more than we would like to believe. It bears heavily on the regression to the mean concept–outliers being the statistical phenomena that are outside of what we expect to happen. He looks at everything from prejudice and privilege to understand the notion of success and the events that make it possible for us. 

Can humans reliably recognize luck, especially if it goes against our perceptions of ourselves? It's pretty humbling to realize most of the time we think we’ve been especially smart about a given decision, we are actually more likely  to have been just lucky. It’s easy to see how overconfidence seeps in and we can actually start to see how businesses and decisions are being based on…luck. Kinda scary.

I’ve been aligning to the idea that we can make better decisions and mitigate our own human errors by becoming more aware of these various follies in thinking. I think we They especially apply in UX and product design, as the field of human-computer-interaction is understanding the effects of cognitive behavior and decision-making through software. Aside from the psychology intersection of UX design, being aware of decision-making effects can make me a better business-person and employee across the board. 

Having read Thinking Fast and Slow has definitely positively influenced my design thinking and execution. It’s helped me make my own decisions in management as well as given me immense insight into how humans might react to the products I’m designing. It's an amazing resource and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to think better.