Article • May 17, 2019

Overconfidence bias, learning’s silent killer

By George Schmidt

Salience Learning "Overconfidence bias, learning’s silent killer" blog post image

What is overconfidence bias?

My son has always been the fastest kid in his class. Just ask him.  When he was six, we watched the Olympics together.  When he saw Usain Bolt win the 100M sprint, he confidently turned to me and said “I’m definitely faster than him!” 

Now, I see it as part of my job as “Dad” to make sure he sees the world for how it is.  I promptly took him to the street outside, marked off 20 meters, and timed him. 

After a little warm-up, I counted down “3, 2, 1, GO!” and he jumped out of the start.  He moved quickly and reached the line in just over 4 seconds. 

We then went back and watched the recorded race, and estimated Mr. Bolt’s time for his first 20M as just over 2 seconds.  I looked at my son and said “Not bad! You’re half as fast as the fastest man in the world!” His response was a perfect example of overconfidence bias: “Well, at least I’m the fastest kid in the world!” 

Why does overconfidence kill learning?

As Charles Darwin said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”1 Overconfidence is a killer of learning because it stops people from thinking they can or should get better at something and precludes them from participating or fully engaging in a learning program. 

This can manifest itself in a lot of ways. For example, we’ve seen commercial leaders exclude themselves from learning programs geared towards their teams, even though they could have benefited. We’ve also noticed this with experienced “been there, done that” market access account managers, with typical quotes such as “I already know that” or “I don’t need that training”.  

How can we save learning?

Don’t worry, there is hope. The first step is to help participants understand their actual current knowledge and skill levels. In the case of my son, I was able to directly compare empirical evidence to help him understand how he stacks up to the world’s best. 

So, the first thing we need to do is help learners understand that they have room to learn.  One way to do this is via an assessment.  This can help establish a baseline and show learners where they are versus some specific standard. 

Another important thing to do is to drive a learning culture that enables learners to accurately self-assess their level of competency, then focus them on building competency in their biggest areas of need.  Social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that self-assessment skills can be learned and used to more objectively evaluate one’s level of competence. 

So, the old saying that “ignorance is bliss” is actually true.  But, that bliss fades quickly when professionals’ performance in the field doesn’t quite match expectations.  By helping learners more accurately understand their own skill and knowledge levels, we can help them get a lot more value from learning programs.

1 Darwin, Charles, The Descent of Man, Vol. 1, Introduction, p.3