Is Stupidity Strength Part 2: Confidence

One very common way people believe stupidity can be a strength is that it can give give greater confidence, which brings advantages.

If you are ignorant of your own flaws, you can perform self-assurance and boldness, which makes it more likely you will win success, especially in social competitive situations. (Getting the girl, getting the raise, winning the election.)

If you are ignorant of the risks of a new venture, you will be more likely to boldly attempt it; and many risky ventures are high in expected value.

If you are ignorant of the weaknesses in your ideas, you will proclaim them confidently and have more influence in society, and more of a sense of joyful certainty, than more reflective, self-critical people.  "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Not knowing the flaws in your own character, your own plans, or your own opinions, seems like it might carry an advantage. Even those who think it's morally unacceptable to engage in self-serving delusion often think that the deludedly confident obtain selfish gain from their stupidity. After all, look what it got Adam Neumann -- a CEO so brashly incompetent and unscrupulous that he was recently paid over a billion dollars to leave his company.

But what is this "confidence", why is it good, and why can't you get it without self-delusion?

Confidence Is Willingness To Act

William James, in his "The Will to Believe", was obsessed with the question of whether it could be acceptable to choose a belief, for which you had no evidence, if it made you more decisive and better at functioning in life. 

This was a practical issue for James, as he was plagued with pathological indecisiveness and self-doubt all his life, as Louis Menand's wonderful group biography of the Pragmatists recounts. James spent 15 years deciding on a profession; he was speaking of himself when he said "There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision."

For James, the critical issue for decisive confidence was faith in God. He thought there was no adequate evidence for either believing or disbelieving in God, but that without religious faith, nobody could have the confidence to engage in a life of action or purpose. We would languish in passive despair, sure that our lives had no meaning. 

James defended the choice to believe because he thought the very nature of "belief" or "truth" is rooted in its function as an aid to decision. We are living creatures; we only evolved the capacity to apprehend the world because knowledge helps us make more survival-promoting decisions; a "belief" that doesn't cash out to anticipated experiences that matter to the holder of the belief, is in a sense not a belief at all, but an empty string of syllables he parrots. 

Therefore, a belief in a ground of meaningfulness or worthwhileness in the universe, a belief that anything at all is worth doing, is by the above decision-theoretic standard not only true, but the necessary foundation of all true beliefs.  And this, says James, is essentially what it means to believe in God. 

He's very carefully not saying that you may believe anything that makes you feel better, even if it's false; he's saying that the "belief" that it ever does any good to act is actually true, by the only reasonable and non-circular definition of truth he can come up with.

"A man's religious faith (whatever more special items of doctrine it may involve) means for me essentially his faith in the existence of an unseen order of some kind in which the riddles of the natural order may be found explained...
"Our only way, for example, of doubting, or refusing to believe, that a certain thing is, is continuing to act as if it were not. If, for instance, I refuse to believe that the room is getting cold, I leave the windows open and light no fire just as if it still were warm. If I doubt that you are worthy of my confidence, I keep you uninformed of all my secrets just as if you were unworthy of the same. If I doubt the need of insuring my house, I leave it uninsured as much as if I believed there were no need. And so if I must not believe that the world is divine, I can only express that refusal by declining ever to act distinctively as if it were so...
"So far as man stands for anything, and is productive or originative at all, his entire vital function may be said to have to deal with maybes. Not a victory is gained, not a deed of faithfulness or courage is done, except upon a maybe; not a service, not a sally of generosity, not a scientific exploration or experiment or text-book, that may not be a mistake. It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true. Suppose, for instance, that you are climbing a mountain, and have worked yourself into a position from which the only escape is by a terrible leap. Have faith that you can successfully make it, and your feet are nerved to its accomplishment. But mistrust yourself, and think of all the sweet things you have heard the scientists say of maybes, and you will hesitate so long that, at last, all unstrung and trembling, and launching yourself in a moment of despair, you roll in the abyss. In such a case (and it belongs to an enormous class), the part of wisdom as well as of courage is to believe what is in the line of your needs, for only by such belief is the need fulfilled. Refuse to believe, and you shall indeed be right, for you shall irretrievably perish. But believe, and again you shall be right, for you shall save yourself. You make one or the other of two possible universes true by your trust or mistrust,—both universes having been only maybes, in this particular, before you contributed your act.

Now, it appears to me that the question whether life is worth living is subject to conditions logically much like these. It does, indeed, depend on you the liver. If you surrender to the nightmare view and crown the evil edifice by your own suicide, you have indeed made a picture totally black. Pessimism, completed by your act, is true beyond a doubt, so far as your world goes. Your mistrust of life has removed whatever worth your own enduring existence might have given to it; and now, throughout the whole sphere of possible influence of that existence, the mistrust has proved itself to have had divining power. But suppose, on the other hand, that instead of giving way to the nightmare view you cling to it that this world is not the ultimatum. Suppose you find yourself a very well-spring, as Wordsworth says, of—

"Zeal, and the virtue to exist by faith

As soldiers live by courage; as, by strength

Of heart, the sailor fights with roaring seas."

Suppose, however thickly evils crowd upon you, that your unconquerable subjectivity proves to be their match, and that you find a more wonderful joy than any passive pleasure can bring in trusting ever in the larger whole. Have you not now made life worth living on these terms? 

Courage, here, is the willingness to act under uncertainty, the willingness to live at all rather than committing suicide or passively waiting out your years hoping for death.

Faith, to James, is simply the conviction that something you have not yet seen will someday resolve your uncertainties; that the universe makes sense and your life matters, even if the reasons are outside the frame of your current knowledge. This faith is the difference between seeing a life of hardships as a determined struggle rather than an inescapable hell; it is the difference between seeing your problems and questions as ultimately resolvable and seeing the universe as a perverse, absurd, inherently unintelligible chaos, at every level fractally resisting your comprehension.  You cannot prove you don't live in such a universe; but your ability to live, act, and learn, to obtain any good things in life, to have anything beyond depressive nihilism, depends on your believing the opposite.

In a more secular age, you might call this "faith" simply the belief in an intelligible universe in which survival is possible. But even traditional theologies often makes sense if you translate "God" to mean "the universe, which is singular, and which exists even outside the frame of our perception and all our mental models." Witness all the prayers and holy texts that say that following God's teachings will help us flourish and make our descendants prosper and multiply; this is simply the claim that understanding the laws of Nature (and the decision-theoretic laws of ethics, or the social/psychological foundations of good societies) is to our long-run best interest.  What is "I Am that I Am" but a poetic way of expressing the notion of existence itself, the Universe, the world "out there" that our words and guesses ultimately refer to?

The "faith" or stance that there is one universe, which is ultimately intelligible and habitable, even if we can't see how at the moment, is also held to be important by scientific atheist philosophers like David Deutsch, who calls it the conviction that "problems are solvable". Without a stance of optimism that coherent explanations are possible, no science could actually be done; nobody would ever search for an explanation for the brute facts they observe.

The stance that life matters and that you personally are overall capable of handling life and worthy to make your own decisions is called "self-esteem" in psychology. One can improve it -- and thereby improve performance on a variety of practical tasks -- by writing personal essays about what one values in life.  (This is the original, older meaning of self-esteem, before it became redefined as "agreeing with positive statements about oneself", which doesn't correlate with work or school performance, improved mental health, or suchlike practical successes. Exercises in which you praise yourself don't work; exercises in which you think about your values and priorities do. )  

The "faith" that the universe makes sense and that it's worthwhile to live actively, making plans and decisions, is one of the key things that is destroyed in PTSD. 

This is not a loss of "confidence" or "trust" in any particular thing, which might well be rational after a traumatic experience (after being raped it is rational to have less trust in your rapist or in people similar to him), but a loss of the ability to have self-confidence generally or to trust in anything generally.  The idea of a generalized "loss of confidence" can't be interpreted as an epistemic belief; it's a change in stance, a change in the ground of all belief or action.

Jenny Holzer's art really captures this aspect of the traumatized experience:

This article investigates the philosophical interpretation of the generalized loss of trust, confidence, or meaning that occur after trauma.

The Istanbul Protocol, a United Nations guide to documenting cases of torture, claims that torture survivors lose the will to look forward to, or shape, their own future.  "The victim has a subjective feeling of having been irreparably damaged and having undergone an irreversible personality change. He or she has a sense of foreshortened future without expectation of a career, marriage, children, or normal lifespan."

In PTSD, "we experience a fundamental assault on our right to live, on our personal sense of worth, and further, on our sense that the world (including people) basically supports human life. Our relationship with existence itself is shattered. Existence in this sense includes all the meaning structures that tell us we are a valued and viable part of the fabric of life..."

What, exactly, does this “shattering” involve? It could be that experiencing significant suffering at the hands of another person leads to a negation of engrained beliefs such as “people do not hurt each other for the sake of causing pain,” “people will help me if I am suffering,” and so on. Then again, through our constant exposure to news stories and other sources, most of us are well aware that people seriously harm each other in all manner of ways. One option is to maintain that we do not truly “believe” such things until we endure them ourselves, and various references to loss of trust as the overturning of deeply held “assumptions” lend themselves to that view. For example, Herman (1992/1997, p. 51) states that “traumatic events destroy the victim’s fundamental assumptions about the safety of the world,” and Brison (2002, p. 26) describes how interpersonal trauma “undermined my most fundamental assumptions about the world.” An explicitly cognitive approach, which construes these assumptions as “cognitive schemas” or fundamental beliefs, is adopted by Janoff-Bulman (1992, pp. 5–6), who identifies three such beliefs as central to one-place trust: “the world is benevolent;” “the world is meaningful;” and “the self is worthy.”


Many of us anticipate most things with habitual confidence. It does not occur to us that we will be deliberately struck by a car as we walk to the shop to buy milk or that we will be assaulted by the stranger we sit next to on a train. There is a sense of security so engrained that we are oblivious to it. Indeed, the more at home we are in the world, the less aware we are that “feeling at home in the world” is even part of our experience (Baier, 1986Bernstein, 2011). It is not itself an object of experience but something that operates as a backdrop to our perceiving that p, thinking that q or acting in order to achieve r. To lose it is not just to endorse one set of evaluative judgments over another. It is more akin to losses of practical confidence that all of us feel on occasion, in relation to one or another performance. Suppose, for instance, one starts to “feel” that one can no longer teach well. Granted, evaluative judgments have a role to play, but loss of confidence need not originate in explicit judgments about one’s performance, and its nature is not exhausted by however many judgments. The lecture theater looks somehow different – daunting, oppressive, unpredictable, uncontrollable. Along with this, one’s actions lack their more usual fluidity and one’s words their spontaneity. The experience is centrally one of feeling unable to engage in a habitual, practical performance. And loss of confidence can remain resistant to change even when one explicitly endorses propositions such as “I am a good teacher.”
Such an experience can be fairly circumscribed, relating primarily to certain situations. However, we suggest that human experience also has a more enveloping “overall style” of anticipation. This view is developed in some depth by the phenomenologist Husserl (1991). According to Husserl, all of our experiences and activities incorporate anticipation. He uses the term “protention” to refer to an anticipatory structure that is integral to our sense of the present.
The 19th-century philosopher Edmund Husserl, much like contemporary neuroscientists, believed there is no perception without anticipation; all sensory perceptions and indeed all motor actions involve hypotheses about what we will observe next, or what will happen if we do this or that.  The basic function of the brain is to form predictions and measure how and in what way they differ from our subsequent observations.  There is no level at which our senses provide us with an unmediated, judgment-free snapshot of reality; it's prediction and error-correction all the way down. 

Loss of trust in our ability to make correct predictions thus means a generalized weakness in our ability to perceive, think, and act.  It is loss of trust in the intelligibility of the universe and in our own ability to act to achieve goals; it is loss of trust that the future can be predicted, and thus that there's any point in planning or investing in the future. It is overall a loss of meaningfulness, a loss of the sense that anything has a point, a loss of will to act, a loss of confidence.  In other words, the problem caused by trauma is exactly the problem that confronted William James.

It's a common observation that the risk of PTSD is not predicted so much by the severity of the trauma as by the degree to which the victim is persuaded to deny her own experience; pressured (by abusers or bystanders) to believe that it didn't really happen, that it wasn't so bad, or that she deserved it. It's not surprising that this particular experience is damaging to one's trust in one's own ability to make sense of reality or rationally assess risk to oneself.

Confidence Without Self-Delusion

The above model of how confidence works makes it clear that we don't have to be stupid or delusional to get most of the benefits of high confidence.  

Confidence is not a belief, in the ordinary sense.  It is not the belief that you are beautiful or brilliant or that your plans will work or that your ideas are right.  It is a stance of willingness to act, decisively and uninhibitedly. You can make a choice to act, without changing your assessment of any hypothesis; in machine-learning terms, confidence is a hyperparameter, an error threshold for "enough certainty" required before taking action or asserting a conviction, which you can lower if it is too high.

Eliezer Yudkowsky has remarked that he often thinks projects are worth trying on net despite only having, in his estimate, a 10% probability of success; while other people, in order to be motivated to try at all, need to psych themselves up into the unrealistically "confident" belief that success is virtually certain.  Most people conflate self-esteem or global self-confidence or courage, the willingness to try, with over-optimism about one's chances; but this is a needless error.

The need for external "validation" of one's basic worth as a person is likewise an error of looking for evidence of one's worthiness, when what you really want is permission to act as you desire; or, one might cash this out as a decision to act as you desire.  Repeatedly looking for validation, when you aren't really seeking new information, because you know what answer you expect and want to get, isn't going to work, because data only conveys information (in the Shannon sense) if it's surprising.  You can't come to "believe in yourself" by spamming your brain with the same data over and over. But if you know you want more self-confidence, you already have all the data you need to know more confidence would be good for you. You don't need to seek any more reassurance; you need to unilaterallly change your stance to a decisive one.

Easier said than done! But here's some tactics that have worked for me:

1.) Writing about my values! It's the time-honored, evidence-based trick for increasing self-esteem, and it works for me.  (Yes, this blog post is itself an example.)

2.) Unilaterally doing something I feel like doing in the moment. (Usually a bodily craving like food or exercise, or a minor breach of social propriety like making ugly faces or shouting in my own home.)  

If I'm wrapped up in an anxious obsession with being liked or validated or given approval, I can break that cycle by proving to myself that I have "permission" to do whatever I feel like, except for a really sparse set of ethical and practical constraints that I'm truly committed to. I don't have to be good, in the sense of an identity or "personal brand"; there is what I impulsively feel like doing, there is what I really absolutely must do, and that's all. 

(I usually fast, as is traditional, on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; but this year I actually got a lot of mileage and dare-I-say spiritual growth out of breaking the rule and eating food, when I was falling into an unhealthy spiral of shame and resentment about the idea of "being good," and becoming unpleasant to my family due to hunger.  Eating made me a better mom and wife that day, and the insight catalyzed me being a better friend to my friends in the following few days. Real ethics isn't about being any particular way, in the sense of an aesthetic or persona; that's fake "ethics," which is advertising. If there's anything you actually have to do, in reality rather than in a performative sense, then it will have a function ascertainable through ordinary cause and effect.  The goal of real ethics is not to maintain a goody-two-shoes persona but to exert agency towards good outcomes.  Violating a taboo, on an occasion when the taboo-violation directly helps someone and doesn't break any principle you're truly serious about, can help concretize this to yourself. )

False Confidence As Fraud

There's another kind of benefit self-deluded confidence can have, however, that courage and decisiveness by themselves cannot match; it can be part of a coalitional Stupid Strategy, as mentioned in the previous post. False beliefs are a luxury, an ornament, a costly signal that you are in a secure enough social position that you do not need to be realistic; if you fail, someone else will bail you out.

There is a common phenomenon that "mediocre white men" are given advantages for being unrealistically overconfident, while more-competent, humbler, more serious people who have less privilege (women, upwardly-mobile lower-class people, foreigners and immigrants, especially East Asians today and Jews historically) are seen as less appealing, less "likable", dispreferred as recipients of resources and privileges.  

Part of this is simply that the "overconfident" privileged people are acting on the correct amount of ambition for optimal outcomes, and others would do well to emulate their confidence. We should apply to more things, speak up more, negotiate more for ourselves, try more new things.

Another part of it is that having more resources makes it rational to take more risks; if you have savings or an inheritance, it actually is less risky to start a business. People born rich are free to be bolder; that's part of what wealth means. That's an argument that more people should have access to enough wealth to enable them to take useful calculated risks, but not that there's anything wrong with taking advantage of your good fortune, should you happen to have it.

But a third, perverse possible component of the "overconfidence of the privileged" is that they are signaling their ability to be wrong so they can align in a "too big to fail" coalition that is parasitic on the more-productive, less-grandiose people's work. For this purpose, it isn't enough to just be ambitious, bold, or confident; you have to be shamelessly wrong, to prove your membership in the Stupid Coalition of those privileged to be "secure" in their entitlement to valuable resources that other people produce.  Wrongness -- particularly in the form of excess confidence, where you make bets that would be disastrous in expectation for yourself unless someone else bailed you out -- is an unfakeable signal that you are sure other people will bail you out.  It's a form of playing Chicken with the (social) universe.

Like the tail of the peacock, irrational overconfidence is a self-imposed handicap; it's a gloriously flamboyant waste of resources, as a way of proving its bearer has resources to burn.

To the extent that this is true, we ought to see supernormal returns from investing in individuals who have the same apparent level of performance (in profits, product quality metrics, test scores, whatever) but are a.) from less-privileged backgrounds (women, minorities, LGBT individuals, people from working-class families) or b.) who have a manner that's more serious, modest, down-to-earth, and less entitled or grandiose. There's actually some evidence to that effect; women-led firms have more than twice the average annual rate of return of companies worldwide (24% vs. 11%).

The logic is, someone who's performing at the top, but is "spending" less than her equally high-performing peers on wasteful display signaling, is a much better bet. Your dollar goes farther, in the long run, if you aren't spending half of it on peacock tails.

An actual peacock bears the weight of its tail with its own strong muscles. But the Stupid Coalition's "peacock tail" is supported by the too-big-to-fail dynamics that rely on someone outside the coalition bailing them out.  If you are confident you can find a "greater fool" to enter your Ponzi scheme, or that the use of force will ensure payment of your unsustainable debts (e.g. the government printing more money to continue funding your project, or a Saudi sovereign-wealth fund backed ultimately by violence will invest in the next round), then peacock tails can be a good investment -- if you think the bubble, or Ponzi scheme, or public trust in government, will hold.  If there's enough risk the whole system will crash, "too big to fail" or not, then peacock tails are a terrible investment and you'll do much better optimizing for long-run, resource-efficient value creation.
1 response
Quick editing comment, the "Many of us anticipate..." quote is duplicated. Also, tangential, but, I think in general it's worth noting that a number of other things people that may think of as beliefs are also really stances. (E.g. I keep trying to tell people that Scott's conflict theory vs mistake theory are really not beliefs/theories...)