A recent article by Tim Enthoven in the New York Times – Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence – offers some fascinating thoughts on judgment, expertise, and illusions of confidence, and it’s an interesting perspective from which to examine the challenge of bird identification.
One of his key points is that confidence does not arise from a careful assessment of probabilities.
“Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable. The bias toward coherence favors overconfidence. An individual who expresses high confidence probably has a good story, which may or may not be true.”
Our confidence in bird identification is often based on fleeting glimpses, subjective impressions, and snap judgments, yet we still say we are “one-hundred-percent sure”. This confidence, according to Enthoven, comes from the tidy narrative we construct around our sighting, more than from the actual observation. The real danger of this confidence is that it prevents us from recognizing our mistakes. Overconfidence leads us to reject the possibility of error and instead adapt our story to emphasize our correctness. Overconfidence, ironically, can be one of the biggest barriers to developing expertise.
Admitting mistakes forces us to reconsider and rewrite the narrative, and we get better at bird identification by developing a richer and more nuanced library of scenarios to describe our sightings. In his conclusion Enthoven says: “True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes.”
In other words, the best way to develop true expertise as a birder is to spend long hours in the field, to be alerted to your mistakes quickly, and to review them unflinchingly. Unfortunately, most of our mistakes as birders disappear into the distance, and we never have a clue that a mistake was made, let alone what it might have been. The ones we do know about are often pointed out by other birders, and at that point most people get defensive.
That’s normal, but also counterproductive. Mistakes happen, and they provide excellent learning opportunities, but only if we are open to admitting and examining them.