The Battle Against Confirmation Bias & False Confidence

In our monthly LeaderLines emails, we explore difficult-to-discuss topics to challenge ourselves to be better leaders in the outdoors. Today we tackle the risks of confirmation bias and overconfidence, and offer some skills to avoid it.
Chris Williams Chris Williams
Leadership Development Manager
July 25, 2016
The Battle Against Confirmation Bias & False Confidence
Tall trees and fog on Rattlesnake Ledge hike (in Washington) during winter. Photo by Kym Ahrens.

As Leaders in the outdoor industry, we must always remember the importance of being open to new information, re-evaluating our plans in light of new conditions, and avoiding overconfidence that can lead to mistakes.

THE DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT (DKE) - and how to avoid it

The Dunning-Kruger Effect (DKE) is "confidence that comes from incompetence ." This occurs after someone has mastered a new skill and then becomes - unwittingly - overconfident about it. In short: you don’t know what you don’t know. The end result of the Dunning-Kruger Effect isn’t confusion but, according to scientist David Dunning, a feeling of high confidence. 

This extra confidence occurs anytime someone is misinformed and doesn’t know it. Not surprisingly, “...where people’s knowledge ends and their ignorance begins occurs frequently sooner then one would expect,” Dunning writes in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology.

Our friends at the Outdoor Safety Institute have compiled an excellent article exploring ideas behind DKE and how they may impact your role as a leader in The Mountaineers. In their article they explore how to minimize the phenomenon wherein an individual is competent enough to "graduate," but then finds themselves in a situation where they are unaware they are unprepared. The article is insightful, and I encourage everyone to read it in full

Key strategies for preventing poor outcomes

  • Mix more experienced instructors and leaders with those who are less experienced (we generally do a great job with this)
  • Use the Socratic method and play "devil's advocate" to promote reflection and critical thinking in your development of new leaders/instructors 
  • Clearly tackle and "kill off" any false information inadvertently passed on. Repeatedly emphasize that something is false if it has already been (incorrectly) conveyed to your students. 

Some signs to look out for (in yourself and others)

  • Unwillingness to teach anything new
  • Lack of engagement with a lesson/issue (a sign of "unconscious incompetence")
  • Doing things with great vigor or energy to compensate for personal discomfort (there's nothing wrong with enthusiasm in and of itself!) 

re-evaluating our plans in light of new conditions

A related phenomenon that can occur is ignoring information that doesn't support our beliefs. A frequently-cited study from 1989 showed that Army intelligence experts, when updated with information contradicting  their first impressions, were highly likely to discredit the new evidence and embrace their original conclusions more fervently. This impulse is referred to as "confirmation bias"  which is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information that confirms preexisting beliefs or hypotheses rather than exploring less personally desirable alternatives.

Confirmation bias might play out with dangerous consequences in the backcountry. For example, consider  a difficult navigation issue, assessing an area for avalanche risk, deciding what the weather is about to do - especially when your goal is only 30 or 40 minutes away. In order to stay safe, we have to constantly re-evaluate our circumstances and be willing to change our plans in light of what is happening around us. Reinforce this lesson with your instructors and leaders to support a culture of open-mindedness and inquiry. 

Avoid falling into this trap yourself, and reinforce the importance of avoiding confirmation bias by reminding yourself:

  • "The student comes before the summit."
  • "It's better to wimp out than to limp out." 
  • "A good traveler has no plans and is not intent on arriving."

Being open to evolving standards and new information

We work and play in an "industry" involving many people using a variety of tactics and strategies to engage with the outdoors safely. We all have our preferred ways of doing things, but does this mean we should ignore new or different approaches? No.

Refusing to learn new ways of doing things is a red flag for incompetence. While The Mountaineers are unique in that our volunteer-lead organization trains people to become self-sufficient, we are NOT a guiding service, which is where many national standards evolve from. In some sectors of our organization, you may hear this distinction mentioned as a reason for not adopting certain standards promoted by other organizations. However, as a 'service provider' we owe it to our students to know what others in our field are doing and assess whether we should review existing practices.

"Failure to look beyond your own practices is the height of arrogance," says Reb Gregg, a leading attorney in recreation-based outdoor programs. In his article about the impact of industry standards on liability, he argues that best practices are often found in industry standards; however, he clearly points out that courts are well-equipped to analyze nuanced situations and therefore fear of litigation/liability should not deter you from evaluating any specific industry standard. 

"Standards are embraced by those who seek excellence in their operations. The priority for such people is quality programming and good service to clients – not the avoidance of litigation. Standards may be seen as a threat by those who are not so careful and choose not to learn what others consider desirable practices. Inevitably an organization’s performance will be measured by some external factor – and standards may play a role in that measurement. But the answer is not to avoid the creation or adoption of standards: it is to be sure that standards are reasonably created, articulated and understood. There is a risk in violating a standard. There is a greater risk in not knowing what others, including experts in the field, are doing." Says Reb.

For our Mountaineers leaders, this reinforces our need to stay educated about evolving standards so we can be more thoughtful leaders and better serve our members. 


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Sherrie Trecker
Sherrie Trecker says:
Jul 26, 2016 12:49 PM

Great post, Chris. Good reminders for all of us!