March 4, 2013

Not strictly confidential

Romney’s cocky attitude a symptom of a culture in which the appearance of certainty is valued over accuracy and truthfulness.

In light of the Institute of Politics’ ongoing series about the 2012 presidential election, I invite you to reflect back on its first event of this school year: a screening of the first presidential debate, in which Mitt Romney lied at least 27 times and made a number of wildly inaccurate claims about basic facts like U.S. oil production levels, the unemployment rate, and even his own presidential agenda.

But the candidate’s calculated insincerity didn’t seem to matter; though we certainly didn’t praise Romney for his dishonesty, it did little harm to our bipartisan consensus on his triumphant debate performance. Romney won, we all seemed to agree, and he won because he seemed so sure of himself.

In many ways, Romney was simply following the most oft-given advice for public speakers: Be confident. Imagine your audience in their underwear. Don’t worry about statistics or substance; just fake it ’til you make it. More than anything, our near-consensus assessment of the first presidential debate speaks to just how highly our society prizes confidence, apparently placing it above such values as honesty, intelligence, or even accuracy. Even though this debate took place immediately after the “47 percent” video, and long after Romney had begun to draw criticism for his flip-flopping tendencies, even most of the staunchest Democrats conceded that he had been the clear winner.

But I’m not here to complain about Mitt Romney; I’m here to talk about overconfidence, and the problems it poses for our society. Back in 2002, baseless, overconfident conclusions regarding Iraq’s presupposed possession of WMDs led to at least 6,000 unnecessary military deaths and trillions of dollars in unwarranted federal spending. Mutually reinforced overconfidence in rising real estate prices similarly propelled us into the single biggest stock market crash since 1929. Indeed, overconfidence is the very essence of commercial disaster.

The extent to which this “virtue” of overconfidence has become embedded in the very fabric of our society’s cultural expectations is manifest in every overconfident protagonist, from Harry Potter to fifty-grand-for-fireworks Romney.

From day one of elementary school, we were taught to be confident—to raise our hands and speak up, and to avoid being shy or quiet, as the latter implied that we were hostile or antisocial. Although class participation didn’t carry quite the weight of a devastating foreign war, the consistent reinforcement of the relationship between confidence and academic success (along with its emphasis on involvement above achievement) did help us grow accustomed to speaking and acting before we think.

Moreover, because most of us are (admittedly or not) clueless regarding most subjects, we’ve developed a tendency to congregate around those individuals who seem most knowledgeable. Even when nothing could be further from the truth, we conclude time and time again that he who is confident must know what he’s doing. And as nobody enjoys admitting that they’re wrong, the more committed to a cause or individual we become, the less likely we are to consider —let alone admit—any prospective oversights in our convictions. Not surprisingly, this sort of mutually reinforced overconfidence can become very problematic, very quickly.

I am by no means trying to imply that confidence or participation are bad things, nor that we should radically realign our preferences to value unequivocal truth and accomplishments above less concrete things like hard work and commitment. For one, it’s true that self-confidence is crucial to succeeding in most, if not all, settings and professions; the hypercritical world of success demands that its inhabitants couple determination with strong self-belief.

Moreover, such a change would be impossible—so much of life is simply about showing up and making an effort.

But it’s equally important for us to realign our perceptions with reality. We must focus on recognizing the inherent and inevitable limitations of our knowledge and abilities, whether that entails dissociating self-confidence from superiority or emphasizing opportunities for improvement above praise of mediocrity. To start with, schools could place greater importance on critical thinking at an earlier age and present confidence as a natural consequence of thoughtful pre-consideration. Perhaps then we could work toward cultivating an environment that appreciates the incredible diversity of each of our unique combinations of strengths and weaknesses, as opposed to condemning those who do not fit trendy character traits. After all, a below-average person in a certain field won’t improve unless she realizes that improvement is necessary, and also that half the population is always in the same boat.

They say that knowledge is power. That’s why the mere assertion of knowledge wrongly made by overconfident people—persons emboldened by overestimates of their knowledge or predictive abilities—is so convincing and so dangerous.

But therein lies a critically nuanced distinction between knowledge of information and knowledge of one’s true self and limitations. In regard to this, Socrates phrased it best: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Anastasia Golovashkina is a second-year in the College majoring in economics.