Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Consistency Assumption

Reader’s Digest magazine cited the following story:

'Golf immortal Arnold Palmer recalls a lesson about overconfidence: It was the final hole of the 1961 Masters tournament, and I had a one-stroke lead and had just hit a very satisfying tee shot. I felt I was in pretty good shape. As I approached my ball, I saw an old friend standing at the edge of the gallery. He motioned me over, stuck out his hand and said, "Congratulations." I took his hand and shook it, but as soon as I did, I knew I had lost my focus. On my next two shots, I hit the ball into a sand trop, then put it over the edge of the green. I missed a putt and lost the Masters.’

What happened to Palmer? What crippled his foreseen triumph? His dazzling track demonstrates extraordinary professionalism. He’s anything but incompetent. So why did he miss those seemingly easy shots?

To explain Arnold Palmer failure, we need to borrow a terminology from the language of psychology; What Palmer suffered from is a textbook example of effects of overconfidence.
Not my phone!

What ignited this piece is a personal episode. Few months ago, I purchased a new cell phone, and in order to maintain its brand-new status, I bought a protective leather cover.
And to my bewilderment, I gradually became careless! The phone started drop off more often. At one occasion, I spelled a considerable amount of coffee over it, and I was so confident that the protective cover will do its job. Unfortunately, it did a poor job!

This incident provoked a thought: how often do we assume safety if we are “qualified”, or that certain equipment were in place to ensure our safety? And more importantly, WHY do we make this assumption?

This sort of behavior occurs frequently in different disciplines. Social psychologist and recipient of Nobel Memorial Prize Daniel Kahneman gave it a simple term: Overconfidence. And here is him describing it and its perils: ‘The exaggerated expectation of consistency is a common error. We are prone to think that the world is more regular and predictable than it really is, because our memory automatically and continuously maintains a story about what is going on, and because the rules of memory tend to make that story as coherent as possible and to suppress alternatives.

This kind of behavior reveals itself across various disciplines. Chief among them is car driving. Read the accounts of The Royal Automobile Club (RAC) in a survey conducted on drivers to test their level of confidence: ‘The survey revealed that 79 per cent of young drivers think their driving skills are better than other drivers in their own age group.’

Overconfidence doesn't happen overnight. According to Don Moore, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University, It surfaces in one's behavior when one (or more) of three factors is achieved: overestimation of one's actual performance; over-placement of one's performance relative to others; and over-precision, or the excessive certainty that one knows the truth. For example, in a study conducted by the insurance company PEMCO revealed that for drivers, overconfidence kicks in after 6 to 12 months of driving. This period can be translated to other venues where overconfidence can be a potential peril; think cooking or working on a rig for example.

When we trust our ‘adequate qualification’ we take safety for granted. We assume that external faculties will align with our experience. But in reality we shouldn’t assume that our experience will solely protect us; because that's when we start missing golden Golf shots, or spell coffee over our newly bought cell phones. Because we start to turn a blind eye on contingences and we underestimate the complexity of the world we inhabit.

This is however isn't an invitation to dump basic measurements of confidence, or pretend that you are inadequate to accomplish tasks and deliverables; rather, it's reminder that we should keep our ego in check! Don Moore recommends that we should compare ourselves not to those who inhibit our familiar world; rather to those who are competing with us; thus we keep updating our ledger and stay alert.

In order for us to avoid the perils of overconfidence, we need to dump the auto-pilot attitude we usually operate under. If we don't, it is usually things we adore the most that become at risk; such as championships we designated so much effort for, or an item we designated certain amounts of money for. Or in other more terrifying scenarios, our lives if we drive carelessly.

Safety isn't the thing we execute when accidents happen, it's the practices we do prevent accidents from happening.

Astronaut Neil Armstrong famously said: ‘Well, I think we tried very hard not to be overconfident, because when you get overconfident, that's when something snaps up and bites you.