Is This Overconfidence Bias?

In WWII, the Air Force was calculating the best way to take Saipan, a key island to set up the final bombing of Japan. They brought in a team of experts to find the plan that would minimize casualties while still maintaining a high probability of success. Objectively, the best plan was to have 25% of the planes carry a full load of bombs and have 75% of the planes stay home. Because of the weight of the bombs, the pilots wouldn’t have enough fuel to make it back. But even assuming all of them died, the 25% casualty rate was less than if they had 100% of the planes go with partial bomb loads and enough fuel to get home. This would likely result in a 30% or higher casualty rate. So the suicide mission was not as callous a strategy as it seems at first. And to make it fair, the pilots would be selected by lottery so they all had an equal chance of being selected.

The pilots rejected this plan. They preferred a higher casualty rate in exchange for being in control of their own fates. Eyal Winter, in his book “Feeling Smart,” suggests that this is overconfidence bias. None of them thought they would be one of the 30% in Plan B because they all thought that they were above average bomber pilots. Just like 90% of drivers think they are above average and 99% of college professors think they are above average (although I have talked about how these are not as biased as they seem on the surface when you look at the details). But in a lottery, their own ability couldn’t save them.

In this surprising book, Eyal Winter asks a simple question: why do we have emotions? If they lead to such bad decisions, why hasn’t evolution long since made emotions irrelevant? The answer is that, even though they may not behave in a purely logical manner, our emotions frequently lead us to better, safer, more optimal outcomes.

My Take

I think it might be something else – the nature of intrinsic motivation. The only way military pilots can deal with the constant risk of death is to believe in what they are doing. Part of intrinsic motivation is feeling in control of your actions. So even if they truly believed that their odds were lower with plan B, just being in control of their fate felt better than a lottery. This is known to be a powerful influence on motivation and even stronger in groups such as the military.

Your Turn

I can’t ask you which of these feels more correct because I don’t expect many of us have had jobs where your lives are constantly at risk (unless there are more police, firefighters, and active military reading EID than I realize). But if you have expertise, experience, or opinions about intrinsic motivation and/or overconfidence bias, perhaps you can weigh in.

Image Credit: Magnus Manske

6 thoughts on “Is This Overconfidence Bias?”

  1. I guess they considered a 70 % survival rate to be preferred compared to certain death if selected in the 25% lottery. Seems fairly reasonable and certainly more motivating during the flight, I´d say.

  2. Very Interesting.

    I think most soldiers believe they will be the ones who will survive. I have read that during an invasion, the soldiers were told that 1/3 of them would probably not make it. The typical response was, “sorry for my buddies who won’t make it.”

  3. I would be interested in hearing how the information was presented to the pilots to assess whether there are framing effects as well. Kahneman & Tversky’s research suggests that when scenarios are framed about losses, people are more likely to accept risks.

    In general, I think I would answer your question “it’s both”. When I discuss biases in my classes, I cite Gigerenzer’s research that biases often lead to good decisions (otherwise, they wouldn’t be so prevalent). Experts often make decisions based on rapid, biased processes but become experts because they know when they shouldn’t use them. So, a military pilot must be “overconfident” because surviving comes from having taken good risks & probably learning from them. But, their fundamental personality must include some preference for accepting & desiring risk that make the job intrinsically rewarding as well, so this becomes part of the selection process for military pilots.

    1. It wasn’t presented to them as a research study – it was really happening. So there was no control. I am sure everyone was told in a different way. Or just one major in the front of a crowded tent. So hard to say.

  4. I read of a study done by Don Moore’s in Carnegie Mellon on the experienced degree of control people feel compared to the actual level of control they have . The level of control people actually have and their experienced level of control are indirectly proportional; the more the actual control, the less experienced. The study concludes that people generally don’t have the sense to objectively analyze how much influence they actually have. Considering the desperate circumstances in the war, the pilots probably had very limited control over the mission’s outcomes and based on the study, their confidence (or overconfidence) seems to have been derived form an intrinsic tendency.

    I fly regularly in a C-130 / CN-235 for S/R and cargo drop missions as an armorer. And though I very rarely risk my life, if at all, I must agree that believing I have much control over my fate on the aircraft makes every flight a little more comforting.

  5. If the analysis drops down through psychology into the actual structural mechanics of the way so-called ‘intrinsic motivation’ is triggered, then a grounded explanation is possible for why the motivation and seeming bias arises. It is all to do with the physical differential that’s formed between [self-now] and [could-be] through the person’s imagined visualisation of themselves in possible future situations (Easterley in draft). As Senge says, “It’s not what the vision is, it’s what the vision does…” (1992, p.). There is a physical reason for why those pilots would feel pulled towards the seemingly less rational decision. Researchers who attempt to explore decision-making rationale by wanting to eliminate or ignore this aspect are being perhaps a little too ‘overconfident’ in their approach.

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