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When Confidence Suckers Us In

States of mind

An article this month on the British Psychological Society blog had this to say about confidence: it can make us into suckers if we’re not careful.

The article was based on a recent paper by Loran F. Nordgren, Frenk van Harreveld, and Joop van der Pligt, which examined four studies of confidence and self-control. The process of falling prey to overconfidence goes something like this:

How to be overconfident, step by step
1. Something happens to make a person (let’s call him Daryl) feel confident about how much self-control he has in a particular area. For instance, maybe Daryl is told he’s been very diplomatic in a difficult conversation, or he has some reason to think he’s done more studying for an upcoming exam than his classmates.

2. Daryl is presented with a choice that offers different levels of temptation: for instance, as a smoker who just quit, he might have the chance to sit around talking with other smokers or to avoid them when they’re smoking; or if he’s watching what he eats, he might have the option of bringing either cookies or salad to a pot luck.

3. Feeling confident of his self-control, Daryl takes the path with more temptation. Why should he care, since he has such great self-control?

4. Taking the path of more temptation, not surprisingly, Daryl’s more than likely to succumb to temptation. By being more confident, he’s overstressed his self-control.

Willpower is something we do, not something we have
The reason that Daryl’s situation and the research that the British Psychological Society cites shouldn’t surprise us has to do with a basic misunderstanding our culture tends to have about willpower. We talk about having willpower, as though it were a basic, unchangeable trait, probably inborn or at the very least set in early childhood. If a person has had self-control in one area, the thinking goes, then they should always have self-control in other areas, too.

The problem is that willpower isn’t a basic trait at all: it’s a skill. Some elements of that skill can be applied to many situations, but many other elements are specific to each area where they apply, and they only work when used. For instance, maybe Daryl got in more studying than his classmates because he planned more time for studying in advance than most of them did. If this is the case, then the best way to get in more studying is not to be Daryl, but to plan the way Daryl planned. If Daryl mistakenly thinks he’s just the kind of guy who always gets in more studying and consequently plans less time to study than he would have otherwise, he’s setting himself up for failure by thinking of himself as a success.

How to avoid the trap of overconfidence
The practical idea we can take away from this is this: any time we’re successful at something that involves willpower, we will get the most out of that success if we reflect on it and figure out what it was we did that helped. If that success gives us more confidence, that can be helpful as long as we remember that the success was tied to doing things a particular way, and that repeating that success will require the same or comparable tactics.

Photo by swannman

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