Overconfident people

The strange psychology of overconfident people

Dancing brings you closer to people from all walks of life. It is extraordinary how many I have met over the years. People of different ages, ethnic backgrounds, and personality types. However, dancing has also provided me a great opportunity to study human behaviour and understand deeper the psychological aspects of teamwork and personal development. After all, this is what inspired me to create Leading Beat in the first place!

During my years of dancing I have come across a number of overconfident people. Their confidence and wider behaviour has really intrigued me. What makes people feel so confident about themselves to the point that they become blind to their real abilities.

The story of Joe the dancer

When I used to go to dance classes and events I kept bumping into this talkative guy, Joe. Initially Joe seemed very friendly. We started talking. He said that he had been going to classes or parties on a daily basis, while also travelling to salsa festivals around Europe and getting classes from the best dancers. He claimed that because had danced with thousands of ladies in the past, he was now become a master in the art of leading.

Another thing Joe would do is look at the dance floor and comment on other peoples’ mistakes, dismissing their skills and abilities. He was absolutely convinced that he was so much better than anyone else. He knew the right moves, had perfect musicality, and was the king of the dance floor.

The imagined reality of overconfident people

It quickly became obvious to me that Joe was not only overconfident but also dismissive of others. Nevertheless, I didn’t have a reason to doubt his skills and dedication to Cuban Salsa.

Until I saw him dancing.

The discrepancy between how he was presenting himself and his actual skills was major. He was constantly repeating the same, I would say, quite simplistic moves in an almost robotic way. Furthermore, he didn’t seem to have the musicality he was claiming to have, neither the charisma. What he seemed to be having was a lot of arrogance, which was coming across on how he was treating his dance partners. For Joe, his partners were just bodies he could move around with authority. His mix of arrogance, clumsiness, and poor skills, would often lead to minor injuries and frustration from his partners.

One evening, a lady told me that Joe accidentally hit her on her lip with his elbow and she started bleeding. Not only he didn’t apologise but instead he told her that she needed to have been more careful. Then, jokingly, he told her that next time she should be wearing a helmet.

Of course, there was never a next time!

Joe was completely blind to the fact that he was a mediocre dancer who could only execute the most basic moves. He was disrespectful of others and many people didn’t want to do anything with him. Still, inside his head, he was a world-class expert. On the dance floor though, it was a very different story.

Despite the feedback he was getting he kept the same attitude without making any effort to improve his skills. What was going on in his mind?

Everything seems easy when you don’t have to do it

There is a saying in Greece that “from outside the dance-circle, you sing a lot of songs“. In other words it is easy to criticise and think you know better when you never practice what you preach. In fact, in most fields, from politics to sports to organisations, overconfident people tend to engage in an endless criticism of their peers, leaders, or the system, thinking that this will make them look more knowledgeable.

This is similar to football fans, who have never kicked a ball in their lives, but still are “coaching” professional footballers from the stands. In their mind, they know better than the actual coach who is closer to the players, has skin in the game, and has better knowledge, experience, and awareness of the situation on the ground.

It is easy to find faults in everything and complain about everyone. What is really hard is to create new ideas, find practical solutions, and lead people, even if it is on the dance floor.

Similarly, leaders in both business often have to face all kinds of criticism. Of course, many times the criticism is valid and they do need to pay attention. But quite often the criticism is based on lack of situational awareness and perspective. In most organisations, employees do not have access to sensitive information, neither visibility of the investment decisions, the market challenges or the corporate constraints. In other words, the see a very narrow aspect of a much bigger picture.

This is why they create a simplified imagined reality with only the information they have available. It is easy, it is fun and it makes them feel smart, especially when they do not need to implement their ideas or live with their consequences.

The cognitive traps that overconfident people fall into

Studying dancing through videos, visualising the moves in your head and even practicing alone is quite different than actually executing the same moves with real people on the dance floor. It is very easy to confuse theory with practice, and think that dancing is as simple as it looks on video. This is the mistake that our friend Joe did. He confused what he was visualising in his mind with his actual dance skills.

Of course, understanding theory and watching others can augment the learning process but it cannot replace real world experience. Dancing, like any other form of art, is experiential and requires learning by doing. To learn you need to be brave to try new things, make mistakes and continuously improve from them. Theory cannot get you very far.

Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play.

Immanuel Kant

I cannot even count how many times I’ve heard my older relatives commenting on foreign policy, the global economy or geopolitics. It is a favourite past-time and intellectual play without actually having to make any real-life decisions.

In fact, it seems that regardless of their education level or access to information, many people always seem to have all the right answers about everything. As the author Nassim Taleb describes in his book “Skin in the Game”, life is about taking risks and having something to lose. Yet we tend to listen to people that are good in explaining rather than doing.

It is an interesting sociological and psychological phenomenon.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect and how overconfident people fail to learn

According to the work of the American social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, published in 1999, people with limited knowledge or competence in a given domain greatly overestimate their own knowledge or competence in that domain compared to their peers. This cognitive bias in psychology has been called the Dunning-Kruger effect. People with this bias are not even aware of their lack of knowledge or competence in a particular domain. Instead they believe they act or think in a very reasonable and optimal way.

We prefer taking mental shortcuts, perhaps because this is how ancient humans were able to survive when things were more simple. However, in a complex world, mental shortcuts, from survival aids they have become cognitive biases that keep us blind to the complexity around us.A study published in 2018 indicated that Americans who know little about politics are more likely than other Americans to overestimate their knowledge of it.

The key problem with people influenced by the Dunning-Kruger effect is that they fail to improve their knowledge because their confidence gets in the way. Coming back to “our friend” Joe, I couldn’t understand how someone, who was investing so much time of his life in attending so many classes and events, and had had so much feedback from partners, was so stuck at the same level.

You need to prove you can jump in Rhodes Island

Overconfidence and lack of self-awareness are not new human traits. They existed thousands of years ago.

Ancient Greeks used to say, “Here is Rhodes, jump here”.

The story goes that there was an Athenian long jump athlete, who claimed that when he was in the island of Rhodes, Greece, he had made a record setting jump. He kept repeating his story everywhere he went but unfortunately there was no-one to verify it. It seems though that the record-breaking athlete didn’t select Rhodes by mistake. The island was very far from Athens and it was not easy for people to travel there and make him prove he could jump. One day, an Athenian challenged him to repeat his record-breaking jump in Athens. But the athlete replied that this was only possible in Rhodes. Then the Athenian wrote the word “Rhodes” on the ground, and challenged him again.

It takes a certain level of humbleness to understand that it doesn’t matter what you think or say, what really matters is what you can demonstrate on the dance floor. Yet, many overconfident people, like Joe, get mentally trapped in an image of themselves that is more aspirational than real. Perhaps it removes the pain of failure, perhaps it is easier. But although it is mentally hard, taking the jump is the only way to prove your skills to others, but most importantly to yourself.

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