You’ve likely met that colleague at work who is always convinced their ideas are right, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. Or maybe you have a friend who believes they can achieve any goal, no matter how unrealistic. This unwarranted self-assurance, known as overconfidence, is a trait that most of us exhibit to some degree.

While a healthy level of confidence is beneficial, overconfidence can negatively impact decision-making and lead to poor outcomes. So what causes overconfidence; this distorted view of our own abilities? As it turns out, several psychological mechanisms fuel our overconfidence, often without us even realizing it.

1. The Illusion of Knowledge: We Think We Know More Than We Do

What causes overconfidence, The Illusion of Knowledge-We Think We Know More Than We Do
The Illusion of Knowledge-We Think We Know More Than We Do

When it comes to our knowledge and abilities, we often think we know more than we actually do. This is known as the illusion of knowledge, and it fuels our unwarranted self-assurance.

  • We overestimate what we know. We assume we understand how things work in far more depth than we do. This is because we can’t see the gaps in our own knowledge. We are unaware of what we don’t know.
  • We think we’re smarter than we are. Most of us believe we are smarter, more logical, and have better judgment than average. This bias, known as illusory superiority, applies to intelligence, moral reasoning, and more. We can’t all be better than average, yet we persist in this belief.
  • We rely too heavily on anecdotes and personal experiences. Our own experiences feel vivid and important to us, so we tend to overgeneralize them. But one or a few examples aren’t enough to draw a conclusion. We need data and evidence, not just stories.
  • We seek out information that confirms what we already believe. This confirmation bias leads us to overestimate how much we know because we aren’t getting the full, unbiased picture. We feel well-informed, but our information is incomplete, inaccurate, or both.

The truth is, the world is far more complex than our minds can fully grasp. But when we fail to recognize the limits of our knowledge and understanding, overconfidence and poor decision-making can result. The antidote is seeking out objective facts, considering alternative perspectives, and always remaining open to being wrong.

2. Confirmation Bias: We See What We Want to See

What causes overconfidence, Confirmation Bias-We See What We Want to See
Confirmation Bias-We See What We Want to See

It refers to our tendency to favor information and evidence that confirms our preexisting beliefs while ignoring information that contradicts them. As a result, we often maintain an unwarranted sense of confidence in our judgments and decisions.

You interpret new evidence in a way that upholds what you already believe. For example, if you believe that your sports team is the best, you’ll attribute their wins to skill and their losses to bad luck or bad calls from the referees. You dismiss evidence that goes against your views.

This bias also leads us to seek out information that supports what we already think. We follow media outlets and connect with people on social media who share our opinions. We avoid exposing ourselves to different perspectives. This selective exposure further polarizes our views and fuels overconfidence in our positions.

To overcome confirmation bias, make an effort to expose yourself to alternative perspectives and opinions, especially on important issues. Seek out evidence that contradicts your beliefs and opinions, not just information that supports them. Try putting yourself in the shoes of those who disagree with you to understand their positions and arguments.

Making judgments and decisions with an open and curious mindset, rather than one that is closed and rigidly attached to preconceived notions, is the key to gaining a more balanced and accurate view of yourself and the world. Over time, this open-minded approach can help remedy unwarranted self-assurance and cultivate greater humility and wisdom.

3. Optimism Bias: Unrealistically Positive Views of the Future

What causes overconfidence, Optimism Bias-Unrealistically Positive Views of the Future
Optimism Bias-Unrealistically Positive Views of the Future

Optimism bias refers to our tendency to be overly optimistic about our own future and risks. This “unwarranted self-assurance” causes us to underestimate the challenges or obstacles we may face and overestimate our ability to cope with them.

Unrealistic Optimism

When we are overly optimistic, we maintain the unrealistic belief that good things are more likely to happen to us and bad things are less likely to happen to us. We ignore past experiences and statistical probabilities, assuming we will somehow beat the odds. This bias leads us to take risks and make poor decisions as we forge ahead with unrealistic expectations.

Some key signs you may have an optimism bias include:

  • Believing you are less at risk of experiencing negative life events like health issues, accidents, or job loss compared to others.
  • Thinking your projects or goals will take less time and effort to achieve than is realistic
  • Underestimating potential costs, obstacles, or downsides when making important life decisions
  • Having an exaggerated belief in your ability to influence events or control outcomes.

To overcome optimism bias, we must recognize when our outlook is unrealistic, consider potential downsides and obstacles, and plan for adverse events. Talk to others to gain different perspectives, set small, achievable goals, build in buffers, and consider worst-case scenarios. An optimistic view of life is healthy, as long as it is balanced with a reasonable assessment of the risks and challenges along the way. With self-awareness and prudent planning, we can maintain positive expectations while still being prepared for the road ahead, however bumpy it may be.

4. Superiority Bias: We’re Better Than Average (Or So We Think)

What causes overconfidence, Superiority Bias-We're Better Than Average (Or So We Think)
Superiority Bias-We’re Better Than Average (Or So We Think)

Superiority bias refers to the tendency for people to overestimate their own qualities and abilities relative to others. This cognitive bias leads us to believe we are better than average in many domains, from our intelligence to our driving skills to our attractiveness.

We focus on our strengths, not our weaknesses.

When evaluating ourselves, we focus much more on our strengths and accomplishments than our flaws and failures. We dwell on our best qualities and proudest achievements, ignoring our shortcomings and mistakes. In contrast, when we evaluate others, we tend to take a more balanced perspective on both strengths and weaknesses. This lopsided view leads us to conclude that we are superior.

We take credit for successes and blame external factors for failures.

We are quick to attribute our triumphs to internal causes, like our skills and work ethic. However, we blame outside influences for our setbacks and defeats, such as bad luck or circumstances beyond our control. This “self-serving bias” results in an inflated sense of responsibility for the good things that happen to us but not the bad. Our successes seem to confirm our superiority, while our failures do not detract from it.

We surround ourselves with those less accomplished.

The people we choose to compare ourselves to also impact our self-perceptions. We tend to associate with those who are slightly less intelligent or accomplished to feel better about ourselves. Comparing ourselves to those less capable makes us appear superior. If we associated more with those who outperform us, we might gain a more realistic view of our own abilities.

Overconfidence can lead to poor decision-making.

While a measure of self-confidence is healthy, an exaggerated sense of superiority can lead to reckless behavior and impaired judgment. When we overestimate our abilities, we may take risks that exceed our actual competence. We need to recognize our own fallibility and limitations to make wise choices and avoid foolish errors in reasoning or conduct. Maintaining a balanced and humble view of ourselves is key to sound decision-making.

5. Egocentrism: It’s All About Me

What causes overconfidence, Egocentrism-It's All About Me
Egocentrism-It’s All About Me

Egocentrism refers to the tendency to perceive, interpret, and understand the world primarily from one’s own perspective. When we are egocentric, we overestimate our own importance and abilities while underestimating the influence and abilities of others. This self-centered way of thinking is especially common in children and adolescents, though it continues to some degree in adults.

Why does egocentrism develop?

There are a few reasons why egocentrism emerges:

  • Lack of perspective-taking: Children have a hard time seeing outside their own points of view. Their thinking is shaped by their limited experiences, so they assume everyone else thinks and feels the same way they do.
  • Imaginary audience: Teenagers often believe that everyone is constantly watching and judging them. This makes them very self-conscious and preoccupied with themselves.
  • Personal fable: Adolescents tend to see themselves as unique and invulnerable. They believe that their experiences and emotions are more profound than anyone else’s. This sense of personal uniqueness fuels their egocentrism.

How does egocentrism influence our thinking?

Egocentrism manifests in several ways:

  • We overestimate our abilities and knowledge. We think we know more and have greater competence than we do.
  • We believe we are the center of attention. We think others are constantly observing and judging us, even when they are not.
  • We assume others think like us. We project our thoughts, feelings, and attitudes onto other people rather than recognizing their unique perspectives.
  • We take credit for positive events and blame external factors for negative events. We have a self-serving bias where we attribute good outcomes to our skills and bad outcomes to luck or circumstance.

Egocentrism is a normal part of development, but gaining perspective and empathy helps us become less self-centered over time. Recognizing our egocentrism and its influence on our thinking is the first step to overcoming its effects. By considering other viewpoints, we can gain a more balanced sense of ourselves and our place in the world.

6. The planning fallacy: underestimating how long tasks will take

What causes overconfidence, The planning fallacy-underestimating how long tasks will take
The planning fallacy-underestimating how long tasks will take

When planning a task, we often fail to accurately estimate how long it will take to complete it. Known as the planning fallacy, this tendency to underestimate the time required can lead to missed deadlines, rushed work, and stress. Several factors contribute to the planning fallacy:

  • Optimism bias. We want to believe that everything will go as planned, ignoring potential obstacles or setbacks. This unrealistic optimism leads us to think we can achieve more in less time than is possible.
  • Overconfidence in our abilities. We overestimate our productivity and efficiency while underestimating the difficulties we may face. Our skills and motivation are overrated, while challenges are minimized.
  • Focusing on the best-case scenario. When planning, we envision everything going smoothly and according to plan. We fail to build in buffers for unexpected events or complications, leaving no room for error or delay.
  • Anchoring bias. We rely too heavily on the first piece of information we receive—the “anchor”—and fail to adequately adjust our estimates based on the specifics of the current task. Initial timelines often end up being overly optimistic.
  • Lack of experience. When we have little experience with a task, we have trouble envisioning all the steps required and how long each may take. We have no reference point to help generate an accurate prediction.

To overcome the planning fallacy, build buffers into your timelines, account for potential obstacles, consider past experiences, and ask others for input. Recognizing this cognitive bias is the first step to more realistic planning and better time management. With regular practice monitoring the actual time required, your predictions will become far less fallible.

7. The Hindsight Bias: I Knew It All Along (Not Really)

What causes overconfidence, The Hindsight Bias-I Knew It All Along (Not Really)
The Hindsight Bias-I Knew It All Along (Not Really)

Hindsight Bias: The Illusion of Inevitability

Once events have occurred, we tend to perceive them as inevitable and predictable. This is known as the hindsight bias. Our knowledge of the outcome retrospectively distorts our judgment of the likelihood of that outcome. Essentially, we trick ourselves into believing we “knew it all along.”

Looking back, historical events often seem like they were destined to unfold the way they did. In reality, the future is unpredictable. The hindsight bias leads us to overestimate our predictive abilities, believing outcomes were foreseeable when, in fact, they were not. This bias contributes to our unwarranted self-assurance by inflating our confidence in our judgment.

  • We reconstruct the past to fit our present knowledge. Our memories are highly susceptible to distortions that make the past seem predetermined.
  • We fail to appreciate how unpredictable the world really is. Random chance and unforeseeable factors constantly shape events in unpredictable ways.
  • Our explanations for why things happened seem obvious only after the fact. We fail to consider how difficult prediction really is.

Hindsight bias is a normal human tendency, but we must recognize it in ourselves to overcome its effects. We should try to view past events with an open and curious mindset, appreciating how events could have unfolded differently based on the information available at the time. With mindfulness, we can gain a more accurate understanding of our own predictive abilities and judgment, leading to a more calibrated sense of self-assurance.

In summary, the hindsight bias contributes to overconfidence by making us believe we knew how events would turn out all along when in reality we did not. Recognizing this human tendency in ourselves is key to developing a well-calibrated sense of self-assurance.

8. Motivated Reasoning: Believing What We Want to Believe

What causes overconfidence, Motivated Reasoning-Believing What We Want to Believe
Motivated Reasoning-Believing What We Want to Believe

1. Confirmation Bias

We tend to search for and believe information that confirms what we already think while ignoring information that contradicts our preexisting beliefs. This is known as confirmation bias. We gravitate towards information and media outlets that align with and bolster our views. On social media, we follow people with similar mindsets and opinions. This creates an echo chamber effect where our beliefs and assumptions are validated and reinforced.

2. Cognitive Dissonance

When we encounter evidence that challenges our core beliefs or values, it creates mental discomfort known as cognitive dissonance. To reduce this discomfort, we may dismiss or downplay the conflicting evidence to maintain our existing views. It’s psychologically easier to bend the facts to fit our beliefs than to adjust our beliefs to fit the facts. This allows us to remain in our state of overconfidence.

3. Selective Exposure

We tend to expose ourselves only to information we expect to agree with, and that confirms what we already believe. We select news outlets, social media platforms, and friend groups that share our values and opinions. Exposing ourselves only to one-sided arguments that support our preexisting views fuels overconfidence in our beliefs and prevents us from gaining a balanced, well-rounded perspective.

4. Biased Assimilation

How we interpret new information depends strongly on our preexisting beliefs and biases. We accept evidence that supports our views uncritically while approaching evidence that contradicts us with a far more skeptical and critical eye. We assimilate information in a way that favors and reinforces our existing opinions. This biased assimilation allows us to maintain an inflated sense of confidence in our beliefs despite exposure to contrary evidence.

To overcome these mental traps and gain a more accurate assessment of our knowledge and abilities, we must seek out objective facts and alternative opinions, consider evidence that challenges our beliefs, and remain open to different perspectives. Overconfidence is difficult to overcome, but self-awareness and intellectual humility are the first steps.

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9. The Dunning-Kruger Effect: The Less We Know, the More We Think We Know

What causes overconfidence, The Dunning-Kruger Effect-The Less We Know, the More We Think We Know
The Dunning-Kruger Effect-The Less We Know, the More We Think We Know

The Dunning-Kruger effect refers to a cognitive bias where people with limited knowledge or competence in a given intellectual or social domain greatly overestimate their knowledge or competence in that domain relative to objective criteria. In other words, people who know the least tend to overestimate their knowledge the most.

Overestimating our abilities

We tend to overestimate our abilities, knowledge, and intelligence. According to the Dunning-Kruger effect, the less skilled or competent a person is in a particular area, the more they overestimate their abilities. This happens because people at the bottom of the competence spectrum lack the knowledge and skills to recognize how little they actually know.

The Four Stages of Competence

Four stages of competence align with the Dunning-Kruger effect:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence: We don’t know what we don’t know. We’re unaware of how unskilled we are.
  2. Conscious Incompetence: We become aware of our incompetence. Realizing we have a lot to learn.
  3. Conscious Competence: Through practice, we become reasonably good at something. But we have to concentrate and think about what we’re doing.
  4. Unconscious Competence: With extensive practice, skills become second nature, and we can perform without thinking consciously about them.

Why It Matters

The Dunning-Kruger effect matters because it can lead to poor decision-making and prevent us from improving our knowledge and skills. When we think we know more than we do, we fail to recognize our weaknesses and the limits of our knowledge. The antidote is education and gaining experience. As we gain knowledge and skills, we become better able to accurately self-assess our abilities.

In summary, the Dunning-Kruger effect highlights the problem of overconfidence that arises from a lack of self-awareness. Recognizing this tendency in ourselves and others can help us avoid its negative consequences.

10. Anchoring Effect: Relying Too Heavily on First Impressions

What causes overconfidence, Anchoring Effect-Relying Too Heavily on First Impressions
Anchoring Effect-Relying Too Heavily on First Impressions

The anchoring effect refers to our tendency to rely too heavily on our first impressions. Once we make an initial judgment about someone or something, we have a hard time changing our views. This cognitive bias can lead to overconfidence in our beliefs and decisions.

Confirmation Bias

When we encounter new information, we tend to favor evidence that confirms what we already believe and ignore evidence that contradicts it. Our preexisting views act as an “anchor” that we don’t want to move away from. We seek out confirmatory information to strengthen that anchor. This confirmation bias reinforces our overconfidence.

Difficulty Accepting New Evidence

Even when faced with clear evidence that contradicts our anchors, we have trouble accepting it. We make excuses, claim the evidence is flawed, or argue that it’s not relevant. Our ego becomes invested in our original judgment, and we don’t want to admit we might have been wrong. It’s psychologically uncomfortable to revise our anchors.

Anchors affect our judgments.

The anchoring effect impacts many of our judgments and decisions. Our first price anchor when negotiating a sale, for example, significantly influences the final agreed price. Diagnosing an illness based primarily on initial symptoms can anchor us to the wrong conclusion, even as new evidence emerges. In relationships, our first impression of someone’s character or personality creates an anchor that endures.

Overcoming the anchoring effect requires conscious effort and an open, curious mindset. We must seek out contradictory evidence, not just confirming evidence. We have to be willing to accept that our initial judgments may have been flawed or incomplete. And we need to remain flexible in our thinking, ready to revise our anchors in the face of new information. Overconfidence fades when we let go of our need to be right and maintain an open and humble stance toward our own judgments and beliefs.

11. Choice-Supportive Bias: Justifying the Decisions We Make

What causes overconfidence, Choice-Supportive Bias-Justifying the Decisions We Make
Choice-Supportive Bias-Justifying the Decisions We Make

Once we’ve made a choice, we tend to seek out information that confirms it was the right one while ignoring information that contradicts it. This is known as confirmation bias. We selectively look for evidence that reinforces our preexisting beliefs and decisions.

Selective Recall

Not only do we seek out information that confirms what we already think, but we also have selective memories. We are more likely to remember information that supports our choices and forget details that call them into question. Our memories are often reconstructed to fit our preferences and choices.

Ignoring Alternatives

After making a decision, we rarely revisit the other options we considered. We become narrowly focused on the choice we make and fail to objectively reevaluate discarded alternatives. This tunnel vision makes us overly confident in our selections and prevents us from seeing opportunities we may have missed.

Rationalizing Choices

To avoid uncomfortable feelings of doubt or regret, we make up reasons why we made the right choice—even if those reasons are weak or implausible. We tell ourselves stories to justify our decisions and make them seem well-reasoned and thought-out, even if they were made on impulse or intuition. This further boosts our confidence and ego, protecting us from recognizing poor judgment.

In summary, choice-supportive biases lead us to feel far more confident in our decisions than we ought to be. By understanding how these mental blind spots operate, we can make an effort to consider evidence more objectively and keep an open mind to other options and opinions. This can help foster more well-reasoned choices and calibrated self-assurance.

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Final Thought

What causes overconfidence? This is a fascinating question that has many possible answers. Some researchers suggest that overconfidence is a result of cognitive biases such as confirmation bias, hindsight bias, or self-serving bias. These biases make us focus on information that supports our beliefs and ignore information that contradicts them.

Other researchers propose that overconfidence is a motivational strategy that helps us cope with uncertainty, stress, or competition. By being overconfident, we can boost our self-esteem, optimism, and resilience.

Overconfidence can also be influenced by social factors such as feedback, peer pressure, or cultural norms. Depending on the context, overconfidence can have positive or negative consequences for our performance, decision-making, and relationships.


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