Epistemic status: anecdotal evidence which I believe can be generalized.

An insight I had in the last few months is that self-confidence has a positive side-effect above and beyond the positive qualities usually associated with it. What I mean is: we've all heard of “just believe in yourself” is the panacea to nearly everything: this is about something different.

Self-confidence is an invaluable way of doing things quickly and efficiently, saving mental resources.

To illustrate my point, I’ll use a real life example: when encountering a problem during work (or study, or starting a relationship, or something else) a person with low confidence will usually agonize over what to do, seek outside advice, validation or orders, in an effort to take the “safe” path.

This has consequences; speaking personally, I had a horrible experience in a past job partly because of this; every question was met with scorn because I didn’t already know what I was supposed to do, or because “it’s obvious! Why are you even wasting my time?!?”.

This made me more insecure, thus leading to me stalling more when encountering something outside of my immediate area of expertise, agonizing over whether to ask questions or not, and so on and so forth.

As an aside, even though asking question is usually said to be a virtuous thing by everyone, this is not so in reality: there are stupid questions, and more to the point, there are questions that if voiced, will hurt your social standing and make you look stupid. Questions that, even if answered, aren't really worth the cost. (No one will volunteer to tell you what those question are. You have to figure it out yourself).

The crucial point of this is that by not asking questions/for orders and using their own judgment, a person is taking a risk (sometimes a very big risk, sometimes just what feels like one).

Except that sometimes taking a big risk is the correct thing to do.

Yes, even if the risk does not pay out and your boss/teacher/significant other berates you for half an hour and makes you feel like the lowest of worms.

There are obvious costs to this: taking risks, is, well, risky. The crucial decision to make is: is the time and reputation preserved by doing this worth the probability of failure?

A way of thinking about this is as an approximation: you treat the fearful/unknown situation as if it were something you already know how to do. In math, statistics, physics (most science actually) this is a necessary step to take, because one cannot wait for a couple of years while a computer calculates the trajectory of every single air molecule, but one can use the equation PV=n R*T which is almost as good.

The social downside of this is called arrogance and cockiness, which are thing that have to be managed to keep good relations with your peers. Still, it is a very good way to conserve resources, both in time and mental energy.

Exercise for the readers:

The last time you took a risk and acted like you knew what was going to happen when you actually didn’t, what happened?

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"Epistemic Status" is meant to convey why the author believes something, not why the quality of the writing is what it is.

I say this not to score Pedantry Points, but because I really like having "Epistemic Status" clarifications at the top of an article and would be dismayed if the term mutated away from its current usefulness.

Edited to be more in line with what you said; edit was late because edit function doesn't seem to work on mobile.


Thank you for pointing out my mistake! You're right that that definition is precious. I'd only absorbed it in its already mutated version because my brain autocompleted it that way. Gonna think about this a bit.

This post describes the state of underconfidence, which is to assign a lower probability to events than what actually happens. The event is here "being right" or "being competent enough to do X". Yes, if people think they're wrong in situations where they are right, they will waste time seeking advice and/or help. Here, self-confidence is a good thing because it brings them closer to correctly evaluating themselves.

Conversely, if they are overconfident they will waste time by making errors and taking more responsibility than they should. There, self-confidence is a bad thing because they are too sure of themselves.

If you are placed in an uncertain situation and you want to ensure success, asking for help is a trade-off between the cost of asking and the expected gain from the information. Say you ask a "stupid question". If its answer helps you figure out stuff outside your area of expertise, it is worth it, and not stupid.

If you are shamed for asking stuff, for wanting to learn, when you are outside your expertise, you are not the problem, unless you asked the wrong person, and there were ways to learn at lower cost.

Learning has a cost. Asking has a cost. You can skip it, rely only on your present knowledge to act now and take a risk, so that it saves resources.

Conversely, you could write a post titled "Asking for help as a time-saving tactic"... for the symmetric situations.

I might actually write such a post, but I see it as being more...parallel to this concept? Aimed in the same direction at least.

And the reason I wrote this is because it's my gut instinct that people starting out in a new field or job are more likely to suffer from underconfidence than overconfidence, which steals their time and resources.

Reading these comments, it seems obvious to me now that I should have framed it more in terms of who it was primarily addressed to; aside from the fact that this is advice I wish I'd heard some years in the past.