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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 24/06/2009

I went to hear Malcolm Gladwell at the Kings on Monday night. He had been the keynote speaker at the Centre’s  launch event, Scotland’s Tipping Point, and so I was really keen to go along. After what I thought was an excessively short performance (55 minutes) I went to a local café for a drink. A woman approached me tentatively to say she had been at the event he had done for the Centre a few years ago and was really interested to know what I thought of the theme of his recent talk. I could see why she might have thought I would have been put out – in a nutshell he was warning of the problem of overconfidence.

I couldn’t agree more. My background is training in personal development and I often ran sessions getting people to think about strengths and weaknesses. A big part of my input on strengths is that they are only a strength if the context  is right and it isn’t overdone. In short, I’m a great believer in Aristotle’s notion of ‘the golden mean’. Too much confidence not only runs the risk of failure through inadequate provision but often shades into arrogance or stupidity.
 
Gladwell chose this theme to help explain the banking crisis. His thesis was that the essential problem was expertise. The more people see themselves as experts, supposedly in touch with all the relevant facts, the more they are likely to be overconfident and take actions which often turn out to be disastrous. Gladwell did not illustrate this point with reference to the financial crisis itself. Instead he chose to talk about the American Civil War.

Gladwell is a great story teller and he brought alive the conflict between the two sides – the Yankees (the north) and the Rebels (the south)- in the battle of Chancellorsville. The north’s army led by the young and charismatic General Joseph Hooker was more than twice as big as that led by the ailing southern commander General Robert E. Lee. Hooker used innovative methods to get information on the enemy and this, coupled with the sheer size of his army, led him to feel that victory was guaranteed. In the end Rebel forces won through cunning and audacity – a southern victory Gladwell attributes to the overconfidence and ultimate stupidity of General Hooker.

Malcolm Gladwell argued at one point that while such strong, confident characters are often capable of huge errors of judgement – errors which can have massive consequences - nonetheless people are attracted to such charismatic figures.

During the talk Gladwell made reference to the Iraq war and the overconfidence of the Bush administration in how they would win – not even thinking through the long-term consequences. Nonetheless Gladwell’s talk was primarily historical. By situating his expose of overconfidence in the past Gladwell implied that there is something fundamentally human about the tendency to overconfidence. Of course, history is full of examples, particularly from warfare. But we must be aware that overconfidence is actively encouraged by contemporary American culture.

Another figure from the Centre’s past – Dr Jean Twenge who did a talk for us on her book Generation Me – has now published a new book with co-author Keith Campbell. It is called The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. The authors report solid empirical evidence which shows that narcissistic personality traits are increasing amongst young people. In effect this means a rising number of people obsessed with themselves and convinced they are more important, more talented and more deserving of success than others. Bound up with this rise in narcissistic self-focus are materialistic values – money, success, fame and appearance.

The authors say that one of the myths about narcissists is that deep down they feel insecure and need to prove themselves but current research indicates that these people have genuinely high self-esteem and believe they are better, more attractive and more talented than others even when the objective facts contradict this favourable view. The actress Lindsay Lohan has a tattoo on her forearm which reads ‘stars, all we ask is our right to twinkle’. Note the word ‘right’ – an important term in the era of entitlement.

The narcissism Twenge and Campbell outline easily translates into overconfidence – how can such people go wrong when they are so clever and so deserving? Overconfidence of the type displayed by the Yankee leaders has always been with us but, thanks to the values of the American media, a potentially more virulent strain is affecting the younger generation. It may take time to see the full effect but these toxic values are making their presence felt this side of the Atlantic thanks to the internet and the media and its fascination with celebrity culture.

Gladwell’s focus was the banking collapse and it is an important topic for us here in Scotland given the spectacular failure of RBS and the Bank of Scotland. One of the questions we need to ask ourselves is this: was our banking crisis brought about in part from a good old fashioned dose of overconfidence? In other words, were our bankers simply the General Hookers of their day, convinced they were invincible? Or were they early Scottish casualties of what Twenge and Campbell call ‘the narcissism epidemic’? 

Jean Twenge has a blog and other resources related to the book.

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