Overconfidence: How a Little Learning can be a Dangerous Thing

Fulcrum Labs
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What do the Titanic, the housing bubble of 2008 and the Spanish Armada have in common? They’re all the result of overconfidence.

As a species, we’re notoriously overconfident. It’s deeply engrained in our evolutionary biology, just like our fight-or-flight response or our preference for high-calorie foods. In fact, overconfidence is such a well-established bias that has been studied extensively. And, the general consensus is this:

Humans systematically and habitually overestimate their knowledge, abilities and powers of prediction.

overconfidence balloon

The Relationship Between Experience and Confidence


It turns out that the more experience we have and expertise we gain on a given subject, the more likely we are to demonstrate overconfidence in our decision-making and behavior. For example, research shows that when absolute beginners start to learn a new subject or skill, they can be perfectly conscious and cautious about what they don’t know. They don’t have an overinflated sense of confidence and they approach the subject matter with a mindset that’s more open to learning.

As these beginners gain a little more experience, their confidence levels begin to rise disproportionately. In fact, intermediate learners are more prone to “unconscious incompetence”(not knowing what they don’t know) than beginners. A little experience replaces “beginner caution” with a false sense of competence. Perhaps this is why studies show that:

  • Doctors learning to do spinal surgery usually do not begin to make mistakes until their 15th iteration of the surgery.
  • Beginning pilots produce few accidents — but then their accident rate begins to rise until it peaks at about 800 flight hours, where it begins to drop again.


As the pilot study demonstrates, over time people do learn. As they become more experienced, learners become more accurate, but they still tend to be overconfident. So while expert leaners are more skilled, they’re still vulnerable to making mistakes and errors based on an inflated sense of confidence in their knowledge. In fact, experts are more prone to guessing rather than admitting ignorance and often express certainty in the correctness of their answers regardless of accuracy, because, well… they’re experts:

“Overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.”

Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence by Daniel Kahneman, emeritus professor of psychology and of public affairs at Princeton University and a winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics


Strategies for Limiting Overconfidence & Building “True Expertise”

How do we distinguish between true experts and overconfident pretenders? How can we help our learners avoid the vulnerabilities of overconfidence, and build confidence that’s reflective of their actual abilities?

According to Kahneman, true intuitive expertise – the kind of skill that allows a doctor to confidently and accurately diagnose a patient at a glance – is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes.

Popped Balloon

Based on Kahneman’s insights and the large body of literature on overconfidence, here are four ideas you can incorporate into your training to help overcome overconfidence, build real competence and develop “true experts” in your organization:

Stop asking learners to evaluate how confident they are about their knowledge or skills

Study after study shows that people are more confident in their skills, knowledge and predictions than is objectively reasonable. In short, we are horrible at judging our own abilities. Learning technologies and methodologies that ask learners to indicate how confident they are about their knowledge only encourage this cognitive fallacy.

That’s not to say that learner confidence is unimportant or that we shouldn’t measure it. Just that we can’t rely on learners to accurately assess their own confidence.

Rather than asking learners to indicate their own confidence, learning professionals should judge learner confidence based on subsequent behavior. Did more students sit for a certification exam after completing the training? Did more employees accurately apply knowledge covered in training on the job, pursue job advancements or demonstrate a higher level of job satisfaction? These are all confidence-related metrics that don’t require self-evaluation on the part of the learner.

Allow for ample opportunities for practice

Recent research suggests that repeatedly watching a video of someone performing a skill can give viewers false confidence in their ability to perform the same skill — with no improvement in their actual performance.

Practicing a skill – not watching it or reading about it – is the single best way to get better at a skill. In the corporate training environment, watching a presentation, video or reading a training manual can never replace the importance of actually putting the learning into practice. Make sure your training gives employees plenty of ways to practice what they’ve learned – whether it is hands-on, role-based or assessment-based practice.

Build in safeguards for intermediate learners

As we’ve seen, intermediate learners (those who know just enough to be dangerous) are at the biggest risk of making mistakes and errors due to a mix of inexperience and overconfidence. To mitigate these errors, help intermediate learners build mastery of the skills they need through a competency-based learning approach. Build in safeguards that ensure learners can’t progress until they demonstrate they’ve mastered the subject matter. And encourage them to “refresh” knowledge at key intervals to make sure they’re able to implement it with accuracy.

Provide Immediate, Constructive Feedback

One of factor that keeps confidence in line with competence is feedback. Critically, psychologists call for “good feedback.” But what is that? We know that feedback can actually decrease performance when it’s given in such a way that’s at odds with how learners view themselves.

Rather than providing classic feedback, encourage learners to think critically and determine the right answers on their own. Give them hints rather than the correct answers. And offer opportunities for learners to elaborate and build more robust knowledge with “good to know” information.


Overconfidence can, quite literally, sink the ship. Building confidence that aligns with competence isn’t an impossible feat. But it does require that learning professionals objectively evaluate learners and institute strategies to protect them from the vulnerabilities of overconfidence. For more information about how Fulcrum Labs views confidence in learning, check out some previous articles or contact us directly.