Is Confidence Social?

Consider some uses of the word “confident“:

Tom is confident the bus will arrive soon.

This is often interpreted as Tom assigning a high probability to the bus arriving soon. But then what about:

The CDC is confident this diseases poses only a moderate risk.

Is there a high probability that moderate risk is the correct risk assessment? But what can it mean for an estimate to be “correct”? Is this about the robustness of estimate to analysis variations? Now consider:

Sam took me into his confidence.

Perhaps this means Sam assigned a high probability that I would not betray him. But then what about:

Bill’s manner is more confident these days.

Perhaps this means Bill assigns a high probability to his having a high ability.  But this last usage seems to me better interpreted as Bill acting higher status, and expecting his bid for higher status to be accepted by others. Bill does not expect to be challenged in this bid, and beaten down.

If you think about it, this status move interpretation can also make sense of all the other uses above. Sam taking me into his confidence might mean that Sam didn’t expect me to use his trust to reduce his status. And the CDC might expect that its risk estimation could not be successfully challenged by other parties, perhaps in part because this estimate was robust to analysis variations. Similarly, Tom might expect that his status won’t be reduced by the bus failing to show up as he predicted.

Yes, sometimes confidence can be in part about assigning a high probability, or about the robustness of an analysis. But more fundamentally, confidence may be about status moves. It is just that in some circumstances we makes status bids via asserting that some event is high probability, or asserting that variations of an analysis tend to lead to similar results.

If you ever offer advice, to someone who asks you how confident you are in your advice, try to remember that this may at root not be a question about probabilities. It may instead be a question what can happen socially if your advisee follows your advice. How easily might others might challenge that advice, perhaps then lowering your advisee’s status? To figure that out, you may need to look beyond probabilities and analysis robustness, and consider who might want to challenge this advice, what might make them want to launch such a challenge, and what resources they might bring to such a fight.

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  • when I was working at on the axiomatizaton of common sense knowledge I often wondered whether adverbs like ‘very’ might work exactly this way. I.e. if the choice of describing something X as “very beautiful” might express an estimate that very few people would reject the claim that X is beautiful.

  • Just happened to be reading/listening to Kahneman (hat-tip Tyler) on intuitive thinking and our bad performance on probability questions. Most of his discussion of what the brain (or Type/System 1) is “good” at sounds social. You are confident in something if you can fit available information into a good story, not because your belief is very robust to information you have not yet learned.

  • on the issue of confidence and status challenges see also

    “Zhao Gao was contemplating treason but was afraid the other officials would not heed his commands, so he decided to test them first. He brought a deer and presented it to the Second Emperor but called it a horse. The Second Emperor laughed and said, “Is the chancellor perhaps mistaken, calling a deer a horse?” Then the emperor questioned those around him. Some remained silent, while some, hoping to ingratiate themselves with Zhao Gao, said it was a horse, and others said it was a deer. Zhao Gao secretly arranged for all those who said it was a deer to be brought before the law. Thereafter the officials were all terrified of Zhao Gao. (tr. Watson 1993:70)”

  • An exercise: what does it say about a social equilibrium when everyone is told that “be more confident” is a good thing – and “be less confident” or “be more humble” is never advised?

  • Mark

    I’d say this analysis is stretching it. To put someone under your confidence is to give that person access to some private vulnerability while trusting him/her not to exploit that vulnerability. While such an exploitation may affect your status, it needn’t necessarily do so. E.g., I put a friend in my confidence by giving him access to an emergency stash of money and he secretly steals some of it.

  • Rodney Polkinghorne

    Harold Jeffreys’s Theory of Probability gives a way to interpret the CDC’s statement. He points out that probabilities calculated from uncertain data are uncertain themselves, and should strictly be stated in terms of higher order probabilities.

    The CDC can assert two things. Firstly, on the information available to them, the risk they estimate is moderate. Secondly, they would be surprised if further information changed their estimate.

    The rest of the post strikes me as asking for the police force in newtons.

  • The bus situation doesn’t seem to translate well into status at all, and the disease and trust examples seem strained. The probability interpretation seems to fit better. People seem to intuitively believe a risk estimate can be ‘correct’, even if they can’t say what that means. If Bill places a high probability on his having good qualities, it follows that he will act high status, so it’s not surprising if the concept makes you think of him making status bids even if that’s not what it usually means.

  • T B

    I’m curious…do you think you’re making the same mistake that Meno/Socrates was in The Meno? By looking for one common usage that seems fundamental to the uses of a word? Quotes like:

    “this status move interpretation can also make sense of all the other uses above.”


    “But more fundamentally, confidence may be about status moves”

    I also see that you are slightly hesitant to state definitively that it would “always be about status moves”–which would be an odd claim.

    What would you say to someone who says that you’re being an essentialist, and not taking into account the full variety of the ways we use words like “confidence”?

    I’m thinking mostly about Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblance (and Wittgenstein in general)–since you studied philosophy of science I assume you would have a counter to his argument that the uses of the words can’t be made sense of by one single thing, that there is no fundamental “one” usage? (Because it depends on context.) What’s the counter to this?

  • DW

    Maybe a more charitable way of putting this is for you to consider whether someone else might offer better advice.

  • Doc Merlin

    Its much bigger than that. Overconfidence is what allows market evolution to actually work.
    If entrepreneurs actually acted based on rational expectations of their success they would be much less likely to start their own business. Considering 10 year startup success rate is less than 1/3rd, we wouldn’t get the evolution and failures we need for enough ideas to be tried out, and way less innovation would happen than is necessary.

    Another way of looking at it. The only thing that matters is meme propagation. If overconfidence increases the chance of meme propagation, more than its costs reduce meme propagation, then overconfidence will persist.

    In short, irrational overconfidence is a necessary part of the evolutionary process.