The Bullsh*t of Overconfidence


Truthfully, we're fascinated by bullsh*t. No kidding. Honestly. Trust us. We've written on how betting can serve as a check on bullsh*t, but most writing on the subject is opinion and conjecture. So we perked up to encounter an academic study on the topic.

Well summarized in The Economist, the study asked students how well they understood specific math concepts -- mostly real, but with the addition of several that were utter fabrication. Ask one of your friends if they remember studying "declarative fractions" in high school. If they say yes, they are up on the bull.

The seminal work on bullsh*t noted that liars conceal truth, while bullsh*tters just don’t bother to consider truth at all. For at its core, bullsh*t, inhabits knowledge or expertise that simply does not exist. The study took a shot at finding out who is best at this nefarious skill. Medals go to North America (yes, that includes you Canadians); men (which few women will find surprising); and the wealthy. According to the study, affluent North American males sit at the vortex of the bullsh*t universe.

The rationale from the study’s authors is that much bullsh*t is begat from undeserved confidence. Again, it’s not an attempt to obscure truth, just to side-step it entirely. For the best bullsh*tters also believe — against the evidence — they are more popular and have better problem-solving abilities than their peers. We've written before on the gender bias to overconfidence and the impact on investment decisions, but the connection between bullsh*t and overconfidence seems pretty tight.

This connection is reinforced by another recent (if more polite) paper that examined the unintended benefits of overconfidence. As the summary in the NYT notes, the same bullsh*tters who fake expertise are often perceived by others to be more competent. In other words, there is a benefit to bullsh*t. And in a troubling circle, this perception of competence was then often rewarded by providing the bullsh*itter higher status. While it did not look at geography and gender, as the Times put it: 

…people who came from a higher social class were more likely to have an inflated sense of their skills — even when tests proved that they were average. This unmerited overconfidence, they found, was interpreted by strangers as competence.

The rewards to bullsh*t are particularly troubling when combined with Brandolini's Law: "the amount of energy needed to refute bullsh*t is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it." The more bullsh*t there is, the harder to get rid of it all. Sobering thoughts for sobering times.