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My Model of Confidence/Arrogance

This post originally appeared on The Thinker on May 19, 2010.

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I’ve made yet another model. This one is so simple and obvious that it’s arguably not worth making, but that’s never stopped me before.

It’s a simple graph of confidence versus competence:

Fig. 1. A model of confidence versus competence.

Any person can be mapped into this model by plotting the person’s confidence in his/her ability versus the person’s actual level of ability. Those people who fall on the line have a perfect assessment of their own competence. Those who fall above the line have inflated opinions of their abilities and are therefore arrogant. Those who fall below the line have underestimated their abilities and are therefore humble. It should be noted that a person can be arrogant for some abilities and humble in others, just as a person can be competent in some abilities and incompetent in others.

People naturally interpret confidence and decisiveness in others as signs of competence, and conversely interpret uncertainty and a lack of confidence as signs of low ability. The implicit assumption is that a person’s confidence or lack thereof is generally warranted — i.e., people seem to believe that everyone clusters pretty close to the line in my model of confidence/competence, like so:


Fig. 2. People tend to assume that everyone accurately assesses their competence.

But we know from the Dunning-Kruger effect that incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own abilities and generally fail to recognize their inadequacies. (See here for their full report – pdf.) Moreover, Dunning-Kruger also showed that people who do have true knowledge and ability tend to underestimate their own level of competence.

So in actuality, many (most?) people — those who fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect, at least — cluster more like this:

Fig. 3. In reality, incompetent people tend to be arrogant and competent people tend to be humble.

Because of the common and widespread misinterpretation of confidence (shown in Fig. 2), those who are very decisive and confident can often fool people enough to rise through the ranks, and those who are uncertain and hesitant tend to have a harder time doing so. In the corporate world and in the military, though, one cannot rise very far, or for very long, on the power of confidence alone. Competence in these environments is rather easily observable, as is its lack, so the arrogant are soon exposed.

But it’s a different story in politics. It is, unfortunately, all too easy for a politician to hide incompetence in most areas as long as the politician is very competent in the single most essential skill of politics: persuasion. (And I do think there is at least a moderate correlation between confidence/arrogance and persuasive powers.) Those who are persuasive can spin their way out of anything, by blaming poor results and unintended negative consequences on other factors (usually on the opposing political party) and by playing on the cognitive biases of their constituents.

High confidence is practically a prerequisite for a politician, because (as Fig. 2 shows) voters believe confidence and decisiveness equates to competence. But sadly we are just electing the arrogant. The truly competent may be too humble to ever run for office.

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UPDATE 2/1/2016

I came across some more detailed information on what Dunning and Kruger’s study actually says, rather than just what popular sources *claim* it says. See here. Specifically, their study makes no claim about incompetent people being more arrogant. However, since the very definition of arrogant is having a higher opinion of oneself than is justified, it amounts to the same thing.

But, the actual plot from the original study is here:


Fig. 4. Plot from Dunning and Kruger’s original study.

Clearly people who fall below a certain level of confidence do overestimate their abilities, but I wrongfully exaggerated it in Figure 3 above.

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