Overconfidence is Stylish

On William Strunk, author of the classic Elements of Style:

His original Rule 11 was "Make definite assertions." That was Will all over.  He scorned the vague, the tame, the colorless, the irresolute. He felt it was worse to be irresolute than to be wrong.

An "irresolute" person is "Undecided or unsure how to act; Indecisive or lacking in resolution."  You couldn’t ask for a clearer demonstration that we prefer overconfident people. 

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  • How does preference for overconfidence vary in individuals and populations?

  • Lake

    Relatedly, the prevalence of Strunk and Strunk-like style manuals may be less a reflection of the popularity of the approach than of the tendency of over-confident people to produce style manuals in the first place. Perhaps most people hate the Strunk method but are too shy to say so.

  • You couldn’t ask for a clearer demonstration that we prefer overconfident people.

    And yet, “overconfidence is fatal.”

  • Floccina

    Boy I strongly agree with this post. It is amazing to watch people take advice from confident fools while ignoring hedging sages. It has gotten to the point with me that when some one comes to me with a lot of confidence I think he is a jackass. Scientists tell us that people are risk averse but they take big risks because they do not know the risks and over confident. I like to get advice from the irresolute, they are more likely to stick to the known facts.

  • Geneveve

    This post has great timing for me. I had try-outs for moot court last weekend; I was told that it didn’t matter if I was right or wrong. All that mattered was that I stated my position as assertively and confidently as possible, because I would be believed. And I was told that conceding a point (that really, it had to be conceded) took away from the confidence, which meant that I could be proclaiming Great Truths, and it wouldn’t matter, as it would appear “weak and irresolute,” I believe the judge’s words were.

  • poke

    There’s a flipside to this. Note that one can sound decisive and resolute while being absolutely ambiguous and committing to nothing. Mastery of this skill allows one to succeed in politics.

  • Confidence does seem stylish as does risk-taking. The banker who says ‘I’m not really sure whether I can truly quantify the risk on these CDO’s, but let’s do it anyway’ would seem a rare combination.

  • Aye, but if ye be able to confidently assert yer proposition, then landlubbers from Popper’s school be givin’ ya higher marks for falisifiability. Yar.

  • William Newman

    The “falsifiability” thing mentioned by Thom Blake is roughly makes me disagree with you when you say “you couldn’t ask for a clearer demonstration that we prefer overconfident people.”

    At least from the quotes you gave, it doesn’t seem clear how much Strunk’s attitude might be like Pauli’s famous “it isn’t even wrong.” To be opposed to statements that aren’t even wrong isn’t necessarily to favor overconfidence. And in a writing manual, it would be pretty reasonable to take an attitude like “I can’t give you universal rules for being correct, you’re on your own there, but I *can* give you universal rules for expressing yourself clearly.” Believing that correctness is out of scope in a writing manual isn’t the same thing as believing that it’s unimportant.

    I fully agree that people too often react favorably to overconfidence. But I’m not sure this example is terribly strong.

  • Avast, ye mateys, clear thought results in yer clear proposition which be givin’ ya the clear simple statement, says Orwell. Ya ken smell the privateers, scallywags, scurvy dogs & bilge rats by such refusin’ to give a clear, simple, positive statement, yar. Make a definite simple assertion, me hearties, an’ yer signallin’ trustworthiness.

  • Wow, I forgot it’s talk like a pirate day. I keep my head low this day because I really do, in real life, wear an iconic piece of pirate paraphernalia. The present period is predominantly populated by pirates so people presume I’m posing… pesky.

    Anyway, it’s very true that people prefer (stop that) confidence in the written word because it’s easy for most people to visualize a clear strong argument — even if it’s actually nebulous and weak — when it’s strongly and decisively stated.

    No one wants to read or hear equivocation because it introduces mental overhead by demanding that we integrate the caveats and the new information more tightly into what we already know, instead of accepting the complete, glossy information packet passively.

    Most people don’t have those well-developed critical facilities, hence the preference to avoid using them.

    See — that whole statement above is at best a hypothesis that needs to be defined clearly to be possibly tested… but it’s coherent and it’s strongly stated, so most people would simply accept it.

    There I go again… this must be one of Eli’s stranger meta loops.

  • Thom, William, frelkins:

    You are not your best point estimate. Falsifiability is the virtue of scientific theories, but the penalty for being falsified is death. Concentrate all of your probability mass in one theory and you will die with it, for you will have become that theory.

    If you possess many theories, then you may prosper while your theories die in droves.

  • I understand the allusion to the financial crisis, but there’s a larger point here:

    It’s impossible to be both precise and concise.

    Or, more correctly, I should say that I personally find it difficult on many occasions (though certainly not all) to make my overall point – or points, if I have more than one – in a way that acknowledges all the inherent qualifications, shadings and reservations I might place on that concept in my mind, while still maintaining the attention of my listener (or reader) to the extent necessary to fix said point in their memory, let alone to induce agreement.

    See what I mean?

    If your goal in making a statement is to create for posterity a pure model of reality, then yeah, be irresolute. If your goal is to persuade – or even to inform – you’ll have to make some trade-offs.

  • Lara Foster

    There would seem to be a perponderance of evidence that most people trust the overconfident more than those who use qualification. This may have nothing to do with the current efficacy of actions based on overconfident claims or predictions, though it does indicate that somewhere along human evolutionary history, the tendency to favor and reward the overconfident provided some fitness advantage. This could be causative, i.e. overconfident actions tended to have better outcomes than underconfident ones, or correlative, i.e. extra testosterone lead both to overconfidence and stronger, more fit babies.

    From our modern perspective, the relevant questions are:
    1) How can we personally avoid biasing towards the arguments of the overconfident, and if we should bias slightly towards overconfidence in general, by how much.
    2) How can we prevent others from such bias on a large scale (very difficult I assume).
    3) How should we present our own arguments to various audiences as to achieve a desired outcome. ie, With whom should we display overconfidence and with whom due humility.

    I really think specific research in this field is needed to actually answer these questions.

  • Strunk was talking about writing. I could be wrong, but I don’t think he would like your interpretation. It may have been that his philosophy concerning “resolution” extended to things other than writing, but the way I read it, he was saying that it is important to clearly state your ideas. As a writer this is a very difficult thing to do. It is about learning what is really in your mind and then being able to put that on the page. I think that is the confidence he was looking for. Once one’s ideas are on the table we can discover whether there is anything to be confident about. To be irresolute means you have not even come that far.

  • Alan Gunn

    This passage shows about as well as anything why Strunk & White is a bad book. It mixes meaningless advice about style with statements about usage that are flat wrong (like telling people never to use “which” to introduce a restrictive clause). It is popular, though, so White (the book’s real author) may have had a point about how to score points with the public.