Bookending Cognitive Self-Biases
Author: Dan Bradley
In the Air Force Special Warfare community, we often talk about left and right limits. In short, these are bookends – limits of acceptable operation outside of the norm, the expectation, or the standard. It’s a great concept for a dynamic environment; you understand your mission, but there are going to be unexpected obstacles on the path to achieving that mission. If the decisions you make to overcome those unexpected impediments fall between the predetermined left and right limits of the Commander’s Intent, you’re good to go. Think of it as staying in bounds.
Left and right limits can apply to anything in life, even your own self-image. It is critically important to constantly undergo in-depth, honest, and critical self-assessments to make sure your ego stays within those bookends.
One ego extreme is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Psychology can get a little wordy and confusing, so we’ll keep this simple: this is a self-bias in which people with a relatively low capacity to accomplish a task believe that they are experts. Even more simply put, it’s overconfidence on such an extreme level that it’s almost medically diagnosable. The peak of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is where confidence intersects with incompetence. For the Jocko followers among us, you’ve heard this intersection referred to as the Peak of Mount Stupid.
The other ego extreme is called the Imposter Syndrome, which is essentially the exact opposite of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This occurs when someone who is thoroughly qualified to accomplish a task doubts their abilities so constantly and so intensely that they live in perpetual fear of being exposed as a fraud. They believe that their accomplishments are the result of sheer luck and that they aren’t capable of succeeding on their own. Since we called the last extreme the Peak of Mount Stupid, we’ll call this one the Valley of Diffidence.
The Peak of Mount Stupid and the Valley of Diffidence are, as Mufasa said to Simba, “Beyond our borders. You must never go there.”
The good news is that there’s a lot of real estate between the Peak and the Valley, and that’s where you get to live. You just need to take the time to set up shop.
The simple truth of the matter is that we all constantly experience symptoms of both cognitive biases. When I was a young Joint Terminal Attack Controller in training, I thought that my skills were, as we often say, “Shit Hot.” Even though I was just learning the basics, I was so confident in myself that I was happily planting my flag on the Peak of Mount Stupid. Once I was fully qualified and completely trusted to control airstrikes overseas, however, I felt like I wasn’t skilled enough to have earned that responsibility. Both of those perspectives are unhealthy, not just for you but for those around you – those that trust you, rely on you, and follow your example.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with having confidence. In fact, it’s a prerequisite to success. Likewise, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being humble. But like everything else in life, there is a balance to strike, a dichotomy to embrace. You know your left and right limits, but you must be self-aware enough to check yourself on them every single day. Are you operating within them?
After graduating from the Air Force Academy, Dan served for over five years as an officer in the elite Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) community within Air Force Special Warfare. In that time, he became qualified as an Air Liaison Officer (ALO) and a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), rising quickly to be entrusted with prominent leadership, management, and director roles. Dan partnered with EF Overwatch in 2019 and now works as the Director of Sales for Kahn Mechanical Contractors, a commercial HVAC company in Dallas. He and his wife Lauren live in Flower Mound, Texas.