When he was a high school kid in Pocatello, Idaho, Prof. Don Moore devoured self-help books and listened to motivational cassette tapes that promised him more confidence, more friends, and a rise in the social hierarchy.
They had no discernible effect on his popularity at the time, but Moore went on to build a successful academic career studying the psychology of decision making and overconfidence. Along the way, he bumped up against his own occasional bouts of overconfidence—including an ill-fated fire walk egged on by Tony Robbins—and learned through research how often people overestimate their chances of success.
“Chances are that you are thinking about confidence wrong. If you have spent any time reading self-help books, you could be forgiven for coming away thinking that more confidence is better,” writes Moore in the opening to his new book, Perfectly Confident: How to Calibrate Your Decisions Wisely (HarperCollins, 2020), available May 26. “Decades of research demonstrates how often people have an overinflated sense of their own wisdom…But minimizing confidence is not the solution either.”
“Perfectly Confident” brings together studies from psychology and behavioral economics to explain exactly what confidence is, when it can be helpful, and when it can be self-delusional and destructive. It’s a lively, self-aware guide—replete with anecdotes, scientific research, and provocative questions—that can help anyone, from business leaders to high school students, find what Moore calls “the middle way between having too much and having too little” confidence.
“The middle way enables you to see the truth and understand all that you are capable of, and how to achieve it,” says Moore. “It helps you steer clear of mistakes that can put you at risk for missed opportunities, embarrassment, and pain.
Here are five strategies from Moore for avoiding the pitfalls of an overinflated sense of certitude and more accurately calibrating your confidence.
- Avoid fooling yourself with wishful thinking: Don’t let your desire for something to happen bias your assessment of its probability. Moore’s research has shown that optimism does not usually improve chances of success. Moore suggests writing down your predicted outcomes and keeping score of results to improve your accuracy over time. The book includes a framework for doing so.
- Ask yourself why you might be wrong. Consider the opposite of your assumptions by holding a premortem analysis—writing down ways a project could fail—to temper your expectations and prepare for likely outcomes.
- Avoid being tricked by others’ displays of confidence. Confident entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk, are often more successful. But to view confidence as the reason for their success confuses correlation and causation. Confident people often fail—as with Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. Avoid being duped by confident displays not backed by competence.
- Take the outside view. Step outside of your first-person view and consider rates of success among others like you. What would an objective observer recommend?
- Ask “Wanna bet?” Betting on what you believe will happen can help calibrate the confidence of yourself and those around you. If another rational, well-informed person is willing to take the other side of the bet, ask yourself what they know that you do not.