Chess and the illusion of confidence

Chris and I have a column in Today’s New York Post on what we’ve called the Illusion of Confidence. In the column, we discuss now-classic work by Justin Kruger and David Dunning on the double curse of incompetence: People who are unskilled are also unaware of it. Kruger and Dunning showed that this principle—the worst performers are the most overconfident—applied to domains ranging from senses of humor to logic abilities.

Our essay summarizes the results of a study we conducted some years ago with our colleague Daniel Benjamin (one of these years we’ll get around to writing it up for publication). The study surveyed experienced tournament chess players and found that the weaker players massively overestimated how good they were (they thought their own ratings did not reflect their true, and much better, ability). Their overestimates inherently reflected overconfidence — they thought they would beat someone with their own skill level more than 2/3 of the time. Better players didn’t show as much overconfidence.

The study shows that the Dunning/Kruger principle applies even to a domain for which the players know exactly where they stand relative to their peers and have a full understanding of how skill is measured in chess. We cover all of this research and its implications in more depth in “The Invisible Gorilla.”

Source Cited:
Kruger J, & Dunning D (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77 (6), 1121-34 PMID: 10626367

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4 comments to Chess and the illusion of confidence

  • Unless everyone in Lake Wobegon actually is above average.

  • Glad you liked it. You’re absolutely right that successful people are often confident beyond rational limits. Part of the “illusion of confidence” is that people tend to trust confident people and to treat them as more knowledgeable or skillful than they are. That tendency perpetuates overconfidence as well, helping overconfident but not all that competent people to be more successful than they should be on merits alone. The key in the Kruger/Dunning effect is that it’s the truly incompetent people who have no idea how bad they are. Those who are a bit more skilled tend to be better able to assess their abilities.

  • Enjoyed your NY post article. “Pride goes before a fall,” is an ancient observation…

    I believe most everyone has a story of observing someone who talked a good game, but was mediocre to poor in delivery. What is sad is how infrequently the experience of failure on the part of these individuals humbles them or even makes them realistic.

    The examples of criminals are good ones: no one is more delusional than the idiots who commit crimes. But isn’t it also true that many people who are can be called successful also are confident beyond rational limits? “Fortune favors the bold.” Think of the many self-help books that are not based on rational processes, but emotional achievement of unswerving confidence. “Believe in yourself.”

    Further, isn’t it also true that confidence in males is a highly desired element of sexual attraction? Thus, a lot of jerks get the dates, not because of inherent superior qualities, but because of delusional self-confidence. And think of how that affects the gene pool.

  • Ah yes, the famous Lake Wobegon effect, in which all of us are above average :-)