The Confidence Trick is London-based band Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate’s sixth album. Official release date 29 July 2022. UPC 198003619203. Glass Castle Recordings GC4161.
This album is a collection of tracks on the theme of cognitive errors, particularly overconfidence, and our failure to learn from the consequences of repeatedly following the overconfident. The individual tracks approach the subject from a variety of perspectives, including fictional and historical. ‘Back Where I Started’ and ‘End Of The Line’ are based on my own short story ideas. In one someone fails to learn from repeatedly making the same kind of mistakes, despite the benefits of a time machine. In the other a society has developed in which basic questions about their existence can’t be asked, because historically those certain of the answers have slaughtered each other. Perky Pat and World War Terminus are inspired by Philip K Dick novels. Perky Pat refers to a doll with a glamorous but fictional lifestyle used to distract from reality. World War Terminus was another ‘war to end all wars’.
‘Another Plague’ is about our tendency to dehumanise those who seem different. Refuge follows the story of my great-grandmother’s escape first from anti-Semitic mob violence in the pogroms, then later from the industrial scale genocide of the Holocaust.
The world has repeatedly been led into devastation by those excessively certain in the inevitability of their own victory. This is explored further in the title track of the album. The penultimate track, ‘All Empires Fall’, is a defiant acknowledgement that even the most powerful empire will crumble, and the most brutal dictator will eventually die. The album ends with a quiet reflection on our failure to learn enough from the viral pandemic planning exercise Operation Cygnus to save the lives of the health and social care staff who died from infections caught while caring for others.
Although the album explores some dark aspects of our psychology and history, I think there is also a more hopeful element as well. ‘Silence Is A Statement’ says that we can choose to stand with each other. Although my great-grandmother’s story was brutalised by a murderous regime, she herself was never broken. An earlier draft of the piece spent more time on the parts when she was in hiding, but I felt that didn’t reflect her personality, as I only ever knew her as cheerful and loving. The heroes of her story are the people who risked their lives to protect a stranger.
This album is unusual for me, in that it combines themes that have been of interest to me from two different aspects of my life. Until I had to stop due to Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (a genetic collagen disorder) I was a diagnostic neuropathologist and a medical school teacher. One of my areas of interest was in how doctors learn to make diagnoses, and how they might improve. I taught about how overconfidence and excessive certainty can be important causes of misdiagnosis, and how we might challenge this (1). As I explored this issue in my professional work, it became increasingly clear to me that this is a problem more widely in society, with potentially horrific consequences.
Our society glorifies confidence, and we mistake confidence for competence. As long as the benefits are accrued by the mis-calibrated individual, and the harms inflicted on others, this puts the over-confident individual at an advantage, and everyone else at risk. I am not arguing that we should all be pessimistic all the time - I think a range of views is healthy, and that optimists, pessimists, and realists all have important perspectives. But I think the fetishisation of optimistic overconfidence and excessive certainty is damaging to society as a whole, even if not to the individual overconfident person. We have evolved to admire competence, which is entirely reasonable. Unfortunately we have also evolved to mimic competence, and outside our areas of expertise we are not good at distinguishing between confidence and competence.
Overconfidence can be divided into two broad concepts - excessive certainty, and excessively positive views of ourselves and our favoured groups. Dunning and Kruger were important pioneers in this field (2). They showed that in most ways, most people think that they are better than average, which while it may be true for individuals, mathematically cannot be for the group. One study for example showed that 93% of motorists thought they were better drivers than average. Worryingly, the least competent may be the most overconfident, although being educated alone doesn’t protect us - 94% of academics in one study thought they were in the top half of their profession.
Both kinds of overconfidence can be dangerous. Leaders may start wars erroneously certain of rapid victory. The warmonger may have an excessively positive view of his (3) tactical prowess and be dismissive of his opponents. Many tyrants start with good intentions and the belief that the ends justify the means, convinced that the change they wish to see is inevitable, and the costs limited. The company director may risk the livelihoods of their staff and creditors to make risky debt-laden acquisitions, excessively certain of their outstanding performance. Rock music is sometimes associated with confidence (4). To get up on a stage or release music must take some degree of self-belief (and the potential irony of writing this is the album notes for my own release is acknowledged), but if we are wrong there is a limited downside. If I play a wrong note I may feel a bit silly, but no-one dies. In wider society, self-belief beyond rational bounds has consequences. How many leaders have led their followers into ruin through their own self-delusion, and their followers’ commitment to the over-confident?
We all might be better off if we sometimes paused to ask ourselves, “why might I be wrong?”.
I hope you enjoy the album. Below is more information relating to individual tracks.