Fragility and Confidence

This was going to be a comment on the X-Phi post, but it became too long.

Suppose baseball bats come to be made of a special wood so that, as we’d be prone to say, how fragile they are varies greatly with how humid it is: when the humidity is very low, they become quite brittle, and break much more easily; while they become very resistant to breaking when the humidity is high. Managers would find themselves saying things like this to their teams: “Remember that your bats will be very fragile tonight. The humidity is very low.” Here the manager uses “fragile” to describe how easy it is to break the bats right now (or at least that evening), in the current conditions.

But there would also be a quite different, but also very natural, way to use “fragile.” The bat-maker at the factory might say this, after making an especially good batch of bats: “Today’s batch is excellent. They’re much less fragile than the bats we made yesterday.” The bat-maker doesn’t seem to be describing how easy it would be to break the bats right now, given the humidity of the air currently around them, but rather how easy it will be to break them under a variety of different humidity conditions. (We may suppose that today’s batch of bats is still at the factory, where the humidity happens to be extremey low, so that the bats would be very easy to break right now, while yesterday’s bats have already been shipped out to various high-humidity locations, so they are right now hard to break, though today’s bats would be harder to break than yesterday’s bats if the both sets were exposed to the same humidity conditions. Still, what the bat-maker says seems very natural.)

I think a similar thing happens with our descriptions using the likes of “confident.” Stakes are (at least roughly) to “confident” as humidity is (in our imagined situation) to “fragile.” I don’t know if this use is ultimately correct, but it sure is at least tempting to use “confident” in such a way that we typically become less confident of the truth of various propositions as we enter high-stakes situations. On this use, confidence seems to track (though I doubt it’s reducible to) certain “local dispositions,” we might say, to (un)confident behavior: Right now, in the subject’s current practical environment, is the subject disposed to act on the supposition that p is true without checking further into the truth of p?, is she disposed to flat-out assert that p should it be conversationally relevant?, etc. On this use, as the stakes go up, we tend to become less confident of the truth of various propositions – and this is revealed by such facts as that we will seek to verify certain propositions before acting on them, whereas we would have just acted on them without further checks in low-stakes situations.

But there’s another way to use “confident” – a way in which our “confidence” levels typically don’t vary much as we move between low- and high-stakes situations. On this use, “confidence” seems to track different disposition to (un)confident behavior. It describes how disposed we are to act on p, flat-out assert that p, etc., in a variety of different practical environments, not just the practical environment we happen to find ourselves in at the time in question. On this use, our confidence typically is not reduced as we move into high-stakes environments. Rather, we say that the same level of confidence that we had when the stakes were low is no longer confidence enough to produce confident behavior, given the current high stakes. (It’s of course *possible* for one’s “confidence” to be reduced by high stakes even on the current, more stable, use of “confident.” If the situation has shaken me up so badly that I won’t even produce confident behavior once I again find myself in low-stakes situations, then my confidence has been reduced on both ways of construing “confidence.” But it’s unusual, I think, for one’s confidence, on the second construal, to be so significantly affected by high stakes. That’s why I say that on this construal, our “confidence” is *typically* not affected much by stakes.)

That second use is how I usually find myself using “confident” and its cognates, at least while doing epistemology. I find it very natural to talk as Ram does, for instance, in comment #71 of the X-Phi comment thread:

Now you ask me to bet $10 at 1:1 odds that Obama will win. Fine by me. But now suppose you ask me to bet my life savings at 1:1 odds that Obama will win. No way! Given the massive cost to me of being wrong, I better go out and gather more evidence before I make such a bet! And that’s NOT because I have less than .8 confidence, or because I ought to have less than .8 confidence. It’s because I’m not willing to take a .2 chance of losing my life savings!

But I’ve found that others seem to think of confidence in the first way. This has come up in discussions of my old bank cases. Toward the end of the high-stakes case, I write:

Remaining as confident as I was before that the bank will be open then, still, I reply, “Well, no [I don’t know the bank will be open]. I’d better go in and make sure.”

Most readers have (or at least express) no trouble with that description. But some are baffled, and react in something like this way:

How can it be that he is “remaining as confident” as he was before?!!! Before he was aware of the high stakes of his situation, he was happy to just assume that the bank would be open the next day, to flat-out assert that it would be open, and to act on the assumption that it would be open, all without feeling any need to “make sure” he’s right. It seems that, even without further checks, he took himself already to be sure. But once he’s aware of the high stakes, all of that seems to change, and we’re now told that he is going to do something he’s willing to call “making sure” that the bank will be open before he’ll go back to the confident attitude he had before he was aware of the high stakes of his situation. So it certainly seems as if his appreciation of the high stakes of his situation has diminished his confidence quite considerably indeed. So I’m not sure how to make sense of the statement that his confidence is not diminished.

I think these baffled readers are thinking of confidence in the first, less stable way — the construal on which confidence levels do typically vary greatly as subjects move back and forth between low- and high-stakes situations.

Building on Ram’s betting scenario, we can bring out the differences between these two ways of using “confident.” Suppose Ram & I are equally rich/poor, that we have roughly the same evidence concerning whether Obama will win, that we both become more hesitant to bet that Obama will win as the stakes get very high, but that we both believe Obama is likely to win. I interpret the evidence as being more favorable to an Obama victory than Ram does, and in keeping with that, I will accept every bet in favor of Obama winning that Ram will accept, but there are many such bets that I’ll accept that Ram won’t. As it happens, Ram and I have each just been offered bets — but very different ones. Ram has just been given the chance to bet $100, even odds, that Obama will win. I have the same opportunity, but the bet I’ve been offered is for $200,000. Like Ram, I don’t have the kind of money involved in the bigger bet; to lose would be to go pretty deeply into debt. Now, look at our current behavior as we respond to the bets we’re offered. Ram immediately (and very confidently!) replies (just as I would if I were offered the $100 bet): “Yes, I’ll take that bet! Get ready to pay up, sucker!” Meanwhile, I say, very hesitantly (just as Ram would): “Umm, I don’t know. It’s very tempting. Can I take the rest of the day to decide whether to accept this bet?” Being told that I can delay my decision, I spend the day looking very carefully at all the evidence I can get my hands on, before deciding whether to bet that Obama will win. Meanwhile, Ram has just (confidently!) accepted the bet without doing any further checking. (His “sucker” has offered him the chance to take the rest of the day to decide; Ram brashly shot back (as I would have in his situation): “I don’t need any more time to decide!”) Which of us is more confident that Obama will win? If you’re thinking of confidence in the first way, you’ll say Ram is more confident that Obama will win (as well as being more confident about what he should do). After all, he just immediately took the bet. Look how confident he is! Listen to his brash and confident trash-talking! Look at Keith, worrying & checking, checking & worrying! He sure sounds very uncertain of himself: “Umm, I think,” “I guess”! But if you think of confidence in the second way (as I’m usually inclined to), you’ll say I’m more confident than Ram is that Obama will win (though less confident about what I should do), and the fact that Ram is displaying more confident behavior than I am is not because he is more confident than me that Obama will win, but because my level of confidence that Obama will win, while even a bit greater than Ram’s, is not confidence enough to produce confident behavior, given the high stakes of my situation.

I’m not saying here that both of these uses are correct – or that they’re not both correct. But there certainly seems to be a lot of potential for “slippage” here. Which is why I worry about how well I understand the self-reports of subjects in psychological studies about how “confident” they are, or respondents’ judgments about how “confident” some subject rationally should be in a certain situation. On the first use of “confidence” and the like, our “confidence” levels ought to vary greatly as we move between low- and high-stakes situations; on the second construal, they shouldn’t.


Fragility and Confidence — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks for this very helpful post Keith.

    What do you think of taking “confidence” in the first of your two uses to denote an emotional state that is the opposite of WORRIED, and of taking “confidence” in the second of your two uses to denote something like DEGREE OF BELIEF (which involves commitment to the fairness of a bet at particular odds)? Any thoughts?

  2. Well, feelings of confidence (vs. worry, doubt) will tend to vary with confidence on the first construal at least in most situations, I think. But I don’t think that confidence on the first construal should be identified with the having of such feelings. I think beings much like us, but who lacked any of the feelings we associate with confidence vs. worry/doubt could still be described as being more or less confident that various propositions are true based on their actions and dispositions to act — when will they flat-out assert that P without further checking, when will they act on P without further checking, etc? And I think we’d have the same temptation to use “confident,” etc. in these two different ways when taking about such feelingless creatures as we do in talking about our feelingful selves.

  3. Keith, nice distinction. I’d agree that it’s not always clear what people mean when they rate confidence or perceived confidence, and I’d also agree that the first of your two uses shouldn’t be cashed out as an emotional state. You mention hypothetical creatures without affect (fine!) but I think that even for us there are grounds to preserve a distinction between being worried and being inclined to indulge in further checking before flat-out asserting that P or acting on P. Worry (say, worry about being wrong, or being penalized for error) certainly can drive a person to engage in lots of checking, but it can also push a person to close on an issue rather than risk leaving an open mind on it: e.g. Kruglanski agrees that fear of inaccurate judgment often delays judgment, but acknowledges a class of exceptions: “if a particular closure seems valid beyond the shadow of a doubt … the fear of invalidity may increase the tendency to embrace it rather than prompting its avoidance or postponement” (1996, 264). Equally, when deliberation is made to seem intrinsically delightful we’ll relish the weighing of evidence and delay making up our minds. Donna Webster ran a great experiment on this in which she got her subjects to complete an attribution task normally rated as moderately interesting either under the expectation that they would later be watching comedy videos (these people found the attribution task tedious) or watching videos of a lecture on multivariate statistics (these people found the attribution task thrilling). The people who were having a good time with the task completed it much more accurately but reported much lower confidence in their responses. No worry, but I think lower confidence in your sense (1).

    The king of mindset theory, Peter Gollwitzer, claims that putting people into a deliberative mindset (as opposed to the action-oriented implemental mindset) does generally tend to induce lower mood, but he’s clear that it’s not mood that’s driving the bus: factoring out reported mood leaves the other cognitive effects of mindset intact. (Thanks due to your colleague Tamar Gendler for getting me to read Gollwitzer on this!)

    On your second sense of “confidence”, I think I need a little more help in seeing what is held fixed as we shift between various practical situations. You suggest at the end that confidence levels in this sense shouldn’t change as we move between high- and low-stakes situations; if we leave aside the sort of case you’ve stipulated should be left aside, where a high-stakes scare induces a radical change in underlying dispositions, then confidence levels in your second sense just couldn’t change as we move between high-and low-stakes situations, because they just are patterns of responding in various ways as we move across high- and low-stakes situations. Is the suggestion that there is some phenomenal experience of confidence with respect to a given proposition that remains unchanged as we move among practical environments, although we can see variations in its impact on assertion and behavior? I’m not sure that this is true. Actually, much more radically, when someone is in the midst of wondering whether the bank will be open tomorrow — if he really is wondering, and not just going through the motions of checking in order to satisfy a third party — I find something a bit awkward in describing him as at that very moment believing that the bank will be open tomorrow. Sometimes it seems more natural to see the shift into deliberation on a given proposition as accompanied by a temporary suspension of belief. Anyway, I think I need a bit more guidance on what exactly is going on in the mind of the fictional Keith as he re-evaluates what he ought to think about the likelihood of an Obama victory, having received that offer of a big bet on it.

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