Confidence and Ignorance: Not as Far Apart as You Think


Every woman should meet Anatole Kuragin. Indeed, you probably have, but don’t know it. He is dashing, carefree, devil-may-care, self-assured, and self-deluded. As one character in Tolstoy’s War and Peace says of its two ladies’ men, “Dolokhov and Anatole Kuragin have driven all our ladies out of their minds.”

Prince Kuragin is a prince of a fellow literally, but not figuratively. He’d be described as a “player” today:

He walked with a restrained swagger than would have been ridiculous if he had not been so good-looking and if his handsome face had not borne an expression of such benevolent satisfaction and good cheer. … With women Kuragin was much more intelligent and simple than in the company of men. He spoke boldly and simply, and … had a most naively cheerful and good-natured smile.

On one particular woman, his effect is to “make her feel constrained, hot, and oppressed.” Hot seems the right word even as we now interpret it, almost 150 years since Tolstoy’s work was published.

But looking into his eyes, she felt with fear that between him and her that barrier of modesty which she had always felt between herself and other men was not there at all. Without knowing how herself, after five minutes she felt terribly close to this man.

Part of Prince Kuragin’s impact is doubtless due to his purely physical qualities. But Tolstoy makes the point elsewhere that Kuragin is, in fact, not intellectually talented or hard-working. His confidence comes, in part, from his lack of self-awareness and the gift of not reflecting on who he is, what he does, the errors he makes, and the wounds he inflicts.

Anatole was not resourceful, not quick and eloquent in conversation, but he had instead a capacity, precious in society, for composure and unalterable assurance. … Besides that, in Anatole’s behavior with women there was a manner which more than any other awakens women’s curiosity, fear, and even love — a manner of contemptuous awareness of his own superiority.

Keep Prince Kuragin in mind as you read this excerpt from an essay by Cornell University’s David Dunning, We Are All Confident Idiots:

In 1999, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my then graduate student Justin Kruger and I published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize — scratch that, cannot recognize — just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers — and we are all poor performers at some things — fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack.

What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.

This isn’t just an armchair theory. A whole battery of studies conducted by myself and others have confirmed that people who don’t know much about a given set of cognitive, technical, or social skills tend to grossly overestimate their prowess and performance, whether it’s grammar, emotional intelligence, logical reasoning, firearm care and safety, debating, or financial knowledge. College students who hand in exams that will earn them Ds and Fs tend to think their efforts will be worthy of far higher grades; low-performing chess players, bridge players, and medical students, and elderly people applying for a renewed driver’s license, similarly overestimate their competence by a long shot.

Such individuals are confident because they look at themselves through the distorted lens of their own self-delusion. In the case of a cad like Kuragin — one who has his way with people and then discards them — his self-image is that of a person who is noble and intelligent, despite the obvious characteristics of foolishness, impulsivity, and unreliability Tolstoy impresses on us. Since he is “irreproachable” in his eyes, each of his acts must be good. Men and women of this type reason from an abstract belief about their own value, which automatically confers propriety on all of their behavior. If you suggested he had done something bad, he would reject your opinion and find a justification for his action. You would be told you are too critical or ignored or rebuked for your own shortcomings.

We are dealing with someone who is narcissistic, so in love with himself he doesn’t have room to love others. He is not trying to be hurtful and would be astonished to see himself as he is. Just as unfortunate, he is ignorant of much else in life, including his own level of competence.

Now consider this comment, also from Professor Dunning, who is talking about competence alone:

Because it’s so easy to judge the idiocy of others, it may be sorely tempting to think this doesn’t apply to you. But the problem of unrecognized ignorance is one that visits us all.

OK. My point here is not to make you feel bad about yourself, so I’ll change perspective again and leave you with this thought.

We just had an election. Some of the candidates — now our elected representatives — were enormously confident. Indeed, among us there are those who were impressed by their confidence. These officials will now be leading our city, our state, our nation.