Friday, November 18, 2011

Is we be learning?

A major malfunction of human beings in general is that we are extremely overconfident about the limits of our own knowledge. We think we "know" something, when in fact we do not. We "know" that government should tighten its belt during a recession when in fact, we should do the opposite. We "know" that the government wastes too much money on foreign aid when in fact, it's only 0.5% of the federal budget. We "know" Social Security will go bankrupt in a few years when in fact its fully funded, with no changes at all, until at least 2025.  We "know" there is a higher power who controls our destinies and forgives our sins when in fact there is no God (I kid, I kid, I'm just tweaking the Christians here). This overconfidence effect has the upsetting impact of distorting a lot of public policy, since our political officeholders, and the public that elects them, believes all sorts of things that are simply untrue.  What's even more upsetting is that our knowledge of the existence of what is called the "overconfidence effect" doesn't make us any less likely to be overconfident.  Let that sink in.  I'm telling you right now, we need to be systematically cognizant of the fact that we are overconfident about the validity of our most sincerely held beliefs.  I'm priming you as we speak. Now go and take this quiz and tell me how you do - remember while taking the quiz, you are shooting for 90% certainty/accuracy.  Feel free to be liberal in your confidence intervals.  The point of the exercise is that you are very certain that the correct answer is somewhere in the range you provide. Even though I've just warned you about overconfidence, I suspect you will still all victim.

BTW, I scored a 70% and was shocked to get that high.  But since I was supposed to be 90%, I scored as overconfident.  And please do click on some of the wikipedia links in this blog post if you are unfamiliar with priming or the overconfidence effect.  They are super interesting.


  1. I got 30% but I don't think it was overconfidence, I think it was complete ignorance on the set of questions. And I suppose, even knowing what confidence intervals are, not really thinking in that manner.

  2. I'm not crazy about the test either- I went searching for a better one but couldn't dig one up. God knows I'm not writing one myself.