Beware Of Overconfidence

I hope you took some time to take a look at the latest ECAR report on undergraduates and their use of and attitudes about technology. In addition to Barbara’s post and some good discussion over at COLLIB-L, I commented (on the discussion list) that I had brought up some of the same issues in my ACRLog post about the 2008 ECAR study, and that not much has seemed to change in two areas: (1) student use of the library website and (2) students self-reporting high levels of research and information evaluation skills.

Students reporting they have outstanding research skills is nothing particularly new, and it certainly shouldn’t surprise us because having an exaggerated sense of your own capabilities is just one more innate human failing. I recall a small study I performed for a research methods course I was taking in 1993 or so. At the time I was working at a library where we allowed students to search Dialog using the classroom instruction program. Now you would probably agree that searching Dialog is just a bit more difficult than searching the Web. But in a survey of students who used Dialog at least once a week, approximately 90% reported that their search skills were as good as or better than those of professional librarians. They either had a highly inflated sense of their own skills or they severely underestimated just how skilled the librarians were at searching Dialog. As part of the research project I had the students and librarians conduct the same searches, and the students came not even remotely close to doing as well as the librarians. But in their minds, the students thought they were just as good or better.

Part of the problem that afflicts all of us is a bad case of overconfidence. Maybe, just maybe, do you think that the economic collapse of 2008 may have been caused by a slight case of some financial gurus being overconfident in their ability to maintain control over a complex mix of investment and economic risks, as well as totally unpredictable human behavior. In fact, some recent research indicates that many high-profile disasters (think world wars, Vietnam, Hurricane Katrina, etc.) can be blamed on human overconfidence. You probably see this all the time. In almost any survey in which people judge their abilities, say on a scale of 1 to 10, everyone is above average. At a presentation I attended some years ago, the speaker shared the results of studies that suggested you could predict in advance that anytime people were asked to rate themselves on anything (e.g., how well do you drive) the mean would be 7.7 – and that it was statistically impossible for that many people to be above average. If we’re all above average drivers who is that person making a right-hand turn from the left lane?

But here’s the funny thing about overconfidence. Despite the inherent risks of overestimating your abilities at just about anything – and when students overestimate the quality of their research skills they can turn in a pretty dismal final product – the researchers who studied overconfidence believe there is a clear advantage to being overconfident. Not surprisingly you’ll find others who don’t see it this way, such as this NYT op-ed columnist who points out that government overconfidence is to blame for misguided thinking in the current handling of the executive compensation mess. Overconfident individuals, suggest the researchers, are likely to have a clear competitive advantage over ordinary individuals. “Overconfidence boosts ambition, resolve, morale and persistence…and the greater the risk the more overconfident individuals become.” That doesn’t sound like such a good thing to me.

Despite what the researchers have to say, I’m going to come down on the side of advocating we should beware of overconfidence, both in ourselves and our students. I don’t know to what extent it might be helpful to share the ECAR study’s relevant results with our students. Perhaps it never helps to try to warn someone of the dangers of being overconfident; we just can ‘t seem to help ourselves. But I do think it would benefit us professionally to be mindful of our own flaws when it comes to being overconfident. In Jim Collins’ latest book, How the Mighty Fall, he profiles companies that were at the top of their industries but subsequently went through the five stages of decline. Some were able to recover before becoming completely obsolete. In nearly all the cases the decline begins with overconfidence, too much risk taking, resting on one’s past accomplishments and thinking they could do nothing wrong. Did we academic librarians become overconfident about the ongoing loyalty of our user community? Did our overconfidence blind us to the almost certain likelihood that our users would become more enamored with search engines than what we had to offer them? Looking back at how academic libraries transformed from having a near monopoly on providing access to information for their communities to a state where we are now just one possible resource among many, and quite possibly not even the most valued resource, we may have allowed our overconfidence to lead us into thinking that our user community members would always be loyal to us and value our resources over all others. That’s not how it turned out and we paid the price. At one time few academic administrators or faculty would have questioned the need for an academic library. Now we find ourselves having to justify our right to exist.

So the next time you are asked to rate yourself on anything, or to rate your library’s importance to the user community be mindful of the dangers of overconfidence. Should you ask your students to rate themselves as information researchers – be prepared for some exaggeration. But as savvy academic librarians, I think we will find a way to turn it into a teachable moment.

One thought on “Beware Of Overconfidence”

  1. This is a terrific post. And as you say, it’s important for us to take that overconfidence and teach from there. Isn’t that where creative information literacy instruction steps in: using the confidence students (and anyone) has about Google and applying it in more challenging environments? Overconfidence can be an excellent place from which to start true evaluation of our skills and demands of information.

    I wonder though, how this idea of overconfidence clouds our priorities in the academic library, especially when it comes to technology. But perhaps that’s a blog post of my own! Thanks for the thoughtfulness. Great post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.