The Dangers of Unbalanced Self-Confidence

Given that virtues are our emotional “superpowers”, and that they must be balanced with their opposites for best effect, let’s discuss a pair that is extremely relevant to the topic of discipline: self-belief and humility. When they are properly balanced, you have wise confidence and can practice Mindful Self-Discipline. 

It is easy to understand how not having enough self-belief or self-confidence can make self-discipline very difficult—you don’t take action, you procrastinate and doubt yourself. Now, how can too much self-belief be a problem? Well, when you are overly confident you tend to be blind about your biases and shortcomings. You ignore certain feedback and possibilities, and when reality hits in a way you don’t expect you may then end up feeling discouraged and abandoning your pursuit. 

Let’s look at two examples of this “overconfidence bias”.

The first is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is described on Wikipedia as: 

“A cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. (…) Without the self-awareness of metacognition, people cannot objectively evaluate their competence or incompetence.”

This inflated self-confidence leads you to expect extraordinary results. For example: 

  • You put all your money into a questionable investment opportunity because you know it has to go up in value.
  • You believe that your book will become a New York Times bestseller, even though nobody has ever heard of you and you don’t do any marketing.
  • You think that by following your new diet you will lose 30 pounds in three weeks.
  • You are convinced that you are such a great partner that there is no way your significant other would ever leave you.
  • You procrastinate working on that important project because you are certain that you can finish it up in a week.

We all know what often happens when we engage in this type of thinking. When reality doesn’t confirm our expectations, we fall into the pit of confusion and self-doubt—sometimes even despair.

The second one, Restraint Bias, is believing that you have greater control over your cravings and impulses than you actually have—it’s the Dunning-Kruger effect applied to self-control. Others call this the Empathy Gap Effect: while you are in a “cold state” (calm and rational) you don’t appreciate the power that impulses will have on you when you get to a “hot state”.

With overconfidence in your self-control, you indulge today, convinced that you will be able to restrain yourself tomorrow; you try some drugs because you are confident that you won’t get addicted; you tell yourself that you will “just check social media for five minutes”, or that you will “just eat one small piece of chocolate”. If you have experienced any variant of these, then you know what restraint bias feels like.

Studies show that people with greater restraint bias end up indulging more in the temptations. This is a perfect example of how unbalanced self-belief can hurt your self-discipline.

So this is how the virtue of self-belief can cast a shadow. In order to have self-belief without getting trapped by its shadows, you need to develop self-awareness—the ability to see yourself clearly, past your biases. With this comes the opposite virtue, humility. You then are wisely confident, and not foolishly so. This is the way of Mindful Self-Discipline.

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