On courage
and overconfidence

Magazine: Building on courage – October 2022


Is it brave to jump from a helium balloon 39 kilometres above the Earth? That’s exactly what the Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner did on 14 October 2012. Regardless of the fact that a team of experts had spent months preparing the jump right down to the tiniest detail, the risk the base jumper faced was almost incalculable. Nobody had ever dared do anything like this before. When he reached the ground alive, Baumgartner screamed with joy.

It’s a legitimate question to ask what the purpose of the stunt was. If the aim was to generate publicity around the world, then the media hype surrounding the jump was enormous, so mission accomplished.

But Red Bull, who funded the daring feat, took great care to point out that the purpose of the mission wasn’t to break the record but to focus on the scientific benefits it would bring, as well as to try and “inspire people to dare big”. Most people’s interpretations of “daring big” pale by comparison. But who doesn’t want to have the courage to lead by example and inspire others? People often do crazy things to achieve this, although these “heroic feats” are often hard to explain.

American psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger first discovered and defined the effect which is also named after them. According to the Dunning-Kruger effect, incompetent people often overestimate their own abilities while underestimating the abilities of more competent people. The dilemma is that they’re unaware of it. The pair of psychologists first described the effect in 1999. In a series of studies, they asked students to complete various tests dealing with aspects such as logic and grammar. The participants then had to guess how well they’d performed compared to the other people taking the tests. The results were surprising. Those who got the worst results were the most convinced that they’d performed the best. Even more surprisingly, they still had this feeling of (presumed) superiority even after they’d seen that other participants performed better.

Anybody who thinks this sounds absurd just needs to look around them in everyday life. We come across the Dunning-Kruger effect more often than we might realise. Job applicants who refuse to adapt their application to the actual profile despite getting multiple rejections; managers who ignore perfectly good ideas from their team even though they’re better than many of the ideas they come up with themselves; sportspeople at the end of their careers who don’t want to retire because they think they can still beat their younger opponents. The list is endless. The really brave thing would be for these people to do the exact opposite – but many would think of it as failure.
Yet this is perhaps the bravest thing of all.