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.

12 thoughts on “Overconfidence”

  1. This is just so true, and it’s especially meaningful coming from such a noted authority as you. I get quite a lot out of my favorite birding website but I frequently cringe at the snap “ID’s” provided for distant, blurry snapshots of birds. I’ve become almost perversely proud of how short any of my life lists are (I tend to keep separate lists for different places I’ve lived (or visited, in some cases) and haven’t really bothered to meld them. I know I’ve seen a LOT more bird species than I’ve ever identified; and probably left some in the unsure category that I probably had “soft-ID’d” correctly.
    Am I the only one who gets less than excited by “Big Days?” Are there so many birders out there that are that confident about bird calls alone?

  2. As Churchill said, Success is going from one mistake to the next without losing your enthusiasm. Attitude is everything. And so is giving in to over-curmudgeons. We need our experts, but at times I long back to the day when a robin was so cool.

  3. In over 60 years of birding I have learned from mistakes and made my birding better. I also learned from young gifted
    birders that that learned their birds well and were sharp in finding unusual ones and knowing them. A joy in helping
    them too.
    Although I have birded in many states and England I never got them from the many lists to come up with a “Life list”
    I have concentrated on Colorado and have a good state list.

    So no matter how much you have done there is always room for improvement Robert A. Spencer DFO,CFO,ABA, etc.

  4. @Diane G., I find Bid Days to be exactly the kind of challenge that’s not only exciting, but makes you a better birder.

    I recently wrote about at at North American Birding: http://bit.ly/ngdpJz

    The upshot is that the 95% rule means that you have to all see, and agree, on the ID of 95% of the species you tally.

  5. A famous birder once said to me ” It takes twenty years to build a reputation,
    and only one mistake to destroy it. ”

    You are not allowed to make any mistakes at Pelee. Sad but true.

  6. Sorry for replying late to the blog post, but I find it very interesting.

    I have been particularly interested in the identification of Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers ever since a Hairy Woodpecker flew over one of the counters at a famous hawk watch. The counter called out a Downy Woodpecker even though it was a very obvious Hairy Woodpecker that flew right over the heads of many people. If others knew his mistake, nothing was questioned. A friend and I looked at each out with dumbfounded expressions.

    Ever since that day about 15 years ago, I have been paying extremely close attention to the calls of Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, particularly where I spend 100s of hours each year where both species are common. Normally, when heard well, Hairy Woodpeckers are easy to tell by call from a Downy. However, each walk, and even to this day, I will hear one or two of these woodpeckers and I simply am not sure which one it is. It will be forgotten.

    It seems to me there are numerous obstacles to correctly identifying these woodpecker calls…distance, background noises, I am sure it makes a difference which way the bird is facing and no doubt wet vegetation muffles the calls.

    However, I am still finding that very experienced birders are making mistakes (even more than occasionally) if it is based on calls. Yet everyone makes a quick decision with confidence, whether right or wrong.

    So after spending an extreme amount of time listening and studying theses woodpeckers, I have concluded not all Downy or Hairy Woodpeckers can be identified correctly.

    I think there must be a lot of psychology going on here, but I cannot understand how numerous top birders are confident in their identification of these woodpeckers. Once they hear the call one time, they have an identification and unfortunately because “it is only a Downy” never look for the bird to verify their initial identification.

  7. I just came across something that affirms the point made by Tim Enthoven. It is from Nobel laureate Peter Medawar’s 1979 classic, Advice to a Young Scientist. Here is what Medawar wrote:

    “I cannot give any scientist of any age better advice than this: The intensity of the conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing on whether it is true or not. The importance of the strength of our conviction is only to provide a proportionately strong incentive to find out if the hypothesis will stand up to critical evaluation.”

  8. Thanks for this post. I have just started reading your posts after finding them by Googling information on how to tell Ross’s geese from Snows.

    This is a very interesting and informative article. As a volunteer at National Wildlife Refuges I continually hear people confidently calling birds incorrectly. I look for at least two confident calls, complete with reasons before deciding what a bird really is, when I’m sure I don’t know. Guess I need to do that for birds I know also.

  9. Some musicians play guitar by ear. It is a talent they are born with,
    and develope over time. So too is the human ear with call notes, flight
    notes and songs of birds. Some people have the talent to pick a note
    out of a chorus of sounds. It is a gift.

    1. Hi Fred, True, but I think learning bird songs is like learning a language, and the challenge of picking words out of a conversation (or a room full of conversations) is the same as distinguishing one species song from a chorus. There must be some level of natural ability or hearing acuity, but also, you get better at it as you become more fluent.

  10. François Tardif

    That last comment by Fred is interesting, but carries a very common misconception about “natural gifts” and “natural abilities”.
    Every child is born with the ability to learn every language. No one would say that some individuals have a “born gift” for language. It is the same for music. Those guitar players who can play by ear were not born with that talent, they nurtured it, they developed it. What they were born with was the ability to learn guitar.
    It is the same for every talent. See for example the work of Dr Suzuki on talent education as it applies to music. What is important is work and practice and more work and more practice. Dr Carol Dweck of Stanford has documented this (the importance of work) in her excellent book: “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”.

    I agree with David that learning bird song is exactly like learning a language: you go step by step and do lots of practice. I am returning to birdwatching after a 25 years hiatus and I found that I have to relearn a lot of the bird songs. And I am slowly getting better at it.

    If picking up bird songs is a gift, it is a learnable gift… and everybody can learn it.

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