I Will Apologize . . . If I’m Ever Wrong

Illustration: (c) Bob Greene

Illustration: (c) Bob Greene

There have been an abundance of notable statements by the candidates for president this election cycle. One of many that caught my attention was shared by Donald Trump when interviewed by Jimmy Fallon on the The Tonight Show. When asked if he ever apologized, the candidate replied, “apologizing is a great thing but you have to be wrong. I will apologize sometime in the hopefully distant future if I’m ever wrong.”

For the purposes of this blog, my comment is not about Trump per se but about the apparent mindset expressed by the statement—a perspective that is not at all uncommon nor limited to candidates for office. Perhaps Mr. Trump was just kidding around with his comedian host, but a superhero level of confidence appears to be admired by many, while admitting error or doubt can be considered as a sign of weakness. While views of leadership may be changing, I believe this kind of confidence—actually, overconfidence—is still popularly seen as a necessary quality of strong, courageous, and decisive leaders.

Unfortunately for superheroes and their followers, there is research indicating that we (at least as represented by research subjects in US studies) are not very good at accurately estimating our actual knowledge and abilities—a bias known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Furthermore according to Dunning, “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.” Psychologist and Nobel prize-winner, Daniel Kahneman, said this about overconfidence in a New York Times essay: “[P]eople come up with coherent stories and confident predictions even when they know little or nothing. Overconfidence arises because people are often blind to their own blindness.”

I will have a lot more to say in future posts about the superhero view of leadership and alternatives to it, but for now I’ll close with Shakespeare from As You Like It:

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.