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The previous two posts of this blog discussed risk tolerance and the willingness to put our health at risk due to care for our environment (system instinct). This post is about the psychological mechanism that makes this possible, overconfidence. Because we attribute to ourselves higher skills than we actually possess, we dare and achieve more. The price we have to pay is a greater chance of errors.

Who suffers from overconfidence?

A favorite question during my lectures is: compare yourself to other drivers and give yourself a score between 0 (compared to others I’m a poor driver) and 100 (compared to others I’m a very safe driver). Statistically, all the answers should lead to an equal distribution of scores over the entire scale and an average of 50. The distribution of the collected scores from the audience however tends to be skewed to the high end of the scale. In almost every audience I can recognize a peak around 75 points. Stating it differently, many people estimate themselves as above average when it comes to safe behavior on the road. Quite some suffer from overconfidence.


A realistic self-image, the correct assessment of one’s own capabilities, helps us to achieve the things we can handle and to avoid the things that can endanger. If we suffer from overconfidence we tend to do things that might be beyond our capabilities which may result in a bad outcome. This raises a crucial question: why has evolution, with its survival of the fittest, led to a man who over-assesses himself?

Chances of survival

20,000 years ago in the African savannah survival rates were significantly higher for ancestors who dared more. Whilst hunting it was beneficial to show courage. This helped to come home with a bigger loot, although some suffered from more injuries than the anticipated scratches. In the battle with other tribes showing weakness and doubting one’s own strength was not beneficial. Some bluffing helped to keep the others away.

The world then and now

The world is changing very quickly, where as our genes mutate at only a slow pace. In particular the severity of risks has greatly increased. The physical forces are much larger and the materials we work with are considerably more toxic. The previous scratches can be the end of life these days.

Changing standards

Moreover, our standards have changed greatly. Society no longer accepts accidents at work, no matter how minor they are. We also embrace the conviction that the occurrence of less serious incidents may ultimately also lead to bigger ones. We therefore strive for an incident-free work environment. A realistic self-assessment can contribute to this. Daring, courage and commitment are good and even desirable attributes, but only within the framework of controlled risks. This requires self-control.


From a safety perspective we appreciate the high standards, but we have to recognize that they affect one of the merits of our original nature. Research shows that even today overconfidence leads to higher production, albeit with a higher error rate. Since production and profits are closely linked, management is exposed to the temptation of giving full support to our first nature and accepting a higher risk profile at the expense of potential incidents.

The answer lies within ourselves

We live at a time in which technology and systems usually are fairly well organized. Most safety gains can therefore be achieved by influencing human behavior. For employees, this means tempering one’s self-esteem and strengthening the discipline with which work is being performed. For management, the challenge lies in handling the temptations of short-term success and guarding safety standards. Improving safety mainly lies within ourselves. That is the challenge of our time.


Juni Daalmans

April 2016

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