The More You Know, The Less Confident You’ll Be

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” (Confucius).

As bizarre as it sounds, the more we understand and involve ourselves in an activity, the less confident about it we become.

The logic behind this is that without a full understanding of something, what we believe we understand may distort us into thinking highly of our own understanding or lack thereof.

That’s not to say we become less confident as we engage ourselves, but we start to see the actuality of our understanding and may misplace our own skill below.

When it comes to learning something new, we are overconfident because it’s our ego’s way of trying to force us to feel like we are understanding greater than we actually are.


Overconfidence Can Be Attributed To Misunderstanding

It’s similar to the confidence someone feels in beginners luck.

Before you know your real skill level in an activity, you try your best before you fully understand. But if you see immediate positive results, you feel your skill level is greater than it might actually be.

  • Known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect – if we have low ability, we may suffer from illusory superiority believing that our cognitive ability is greater than it is.

When you come to terms with this effect, you can see it clearly. It’s easy to be over-confident in something we only have a basic understanding of.

We enter the category of unskilled and unaware of it before we can accurately compare our abilities to others.

It’s another cognitive bias in which you want to feel like you understand something you are learning, so your confidence in it goes high before you start learning where you genuinely stand.


Ignorance Is Intrusive

The whole effect ties into ignorance because when we start something new, we fail to see how we might lack the understanding of the actual standard of performance.

An example I’ve come up with uses golf.

  • If I was new to golf and hit a ball 100 yards, I might be impressed with myself
  • Once I have played a lot, I can hit a ball 250 yards
  • I start involving myself in golf and watch the pros break 300 yards easily
  • I can see what they do differently that I am not good at, that needs work
  • I lose the confidence in my ability I had at the very start because I had lacked the understanding to see where I really was standing in comparison to now

Of course, this can be seen happening a lot with individuals who are more ignorant and ignore the actuality of their skill. They embrace the overconfidence that comes with learning a new skill and use it as an advantage is a misinterpreted way.

As we all know, it can really turn people away if on occasion you ignore real standings in activities.


How Can We Stop Perceiving Our Skills This Way?

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).

To break away from always having a misinterpreted idea of our own cognitive abilities, we need to do a couple of things.

#1. Understand When We Might Be Overconfident in New Activities

  • Accept when we are learning something, we might not fully understand what we think we understand.
  • David Dunning himself even stated, “The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”
  • As with many cognitive biases, being aware of it is the first and biggest step to eliminating the possibility of being a victim.

#2. Don’t Compare if You Don’t Have the Authority to

  • Avoid placing yourself in a spot of comparison until you have a full understanding of where and why you stand in the rank you truly are in.
  • Be aware that we constantly place ourselves higher than where we are in the beginning because we want to prove to ourselves we are good at something to keep us involved in it.
  • Professionals and those that have spent many many hours in an activity may low ball their ability because they have engaged enough to know their weaknesses.

#3. Be Looking For Moments of Modesty

  • A person being talked up by others is a lot more attractive than a person talking themselves up.
  • Allow others to compare and place you with actual accuracy because whether we are new or experienced, our actual perception of skill won’t be perfectly fitting the truth.
  • Our cognitive abilities in an activity can always be improved and wanting to learn how to be better our capability will keep us engaged much more than believing we have mastered something we know very little about.


Having talked about a few cognitive biases now, this one intrigues me because a lot of my personality is centered around allowing people to underestimate my ability.

If I am good at something, I won’t come outright and say it, but instead let them decipher where they believe my ability is so as to avoid overconfidence by talking myself up for disappointment.

We don’t always notice the overconfidence we may have when starting a new activity, but avoiding comparison until we have a decent amount of knowledge to compare to is obvious to help us improve ourselves in multiple aspects.

I recommend from here on out, we all notice our confidence in places can be not only unnecessary but intrusive. It’s better to be modest and humble in areas that we do not have the authority to declare ourselves the best.

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