Monday, March 14, 2022

The Parable of the Overconfident Student -- and Why Academic Philosophy Still Favors the Socially Privileged

If you've taken or taught some philosophy classes in the United States, you know the type: the overconfident philosophy student. Our system rewards these students. The epistemic failing of overconfidence ultimately serves them well. This pattern, I conjecture, helps explain the continuing inequities in philosophy.

It's the second day of class. You're starting some complex topic, say, the conceivability argument for metaphysical dualism. Student X jumps immediately into the discussion: The conceivability argument is obviously absurd! You offer some standard first-pass responses to his objection, but he stands his ground, fishing around for defenses. Before today, he knew nothing about the issues. It's his first philosophy class, but suddenly, he knows better than every philosopher who thinks otherwise, whose counterarguments he has never heard.

[image from the classic Onion article "Guy in Philosophy Class Needs to Shut the Fuck Up"]

It's also Student Y's first philosophy class. Student X and Student Y are similar in intelligence and background knowledge, differing only in that Student Y isn't irrationally overconfident. Maybe Student Y asks a question of clarification. Or maybe she asks how the author would deal with such-and-such an objection. More likely, she keeps quiet, not wanting to embarrass herself or use class time when other, more knowledgeable students presumably have more insightful things to say.

(I've called Student X a "he", since in my experience most students of this type are men. Student Y types are more common, in any gender.)

What will happen to Student X and Student Y over time, in the typical U.S. classroom? Both might do well. Student Y is by no means doomed to fail. But Student X's overconfidence wins him several important advantages.

First, he gets practice asserting his philosophical views in an argumentative context. Oral presentation of one's opinions is a crucial skill in philosophy and closely related to written presentation of one's opinions.

Second, he receives customized expert feedback on his philosophical views. Typically, the professor will restate Student X's views, strengthening them and fitting them better into the existing discourse. The professor will articulate responses those views, so that the student learns those too. If the student responds to the responses, this second layer of responses will also be charitably reworked and rebutted. Thus, Student X will gain specific knowledge on exactly the issues that engage and interest him most.

Third, he engages his emotions and enhances his memory. Taking a public stand stirs up your emotions. Asking a question makes your heart race. Being defeated in an argument with your professor burns that argument into your memory. So also does winning an argument or playing to a draw. After his public stand and argument, it matters to Student X, more than it otherwise would have, that the conceivability argument is absurd. This will intensify his engagement with the rest of the course, where he'll latch on to arguments that support his view and develop counterarguments against the opposition. His written work will also reflect this passion.

Fourth, he wins the support and encouragement of his professor. Unless he is unusually obnoxious or his questions are unusually poor, the typical U.S. professor will appreciate Student X's enthusiasm and his willingness to advance class discussion. His insights will be praised and his mistakes interpreted charitably, enhancing his self-confidence and his sense that he is good at philosophy.

The combined effect of these advantages, multiplied over the course of an undergraduate education, ensures that most students like Student X thrive in U.S. philosophy programs. What was initially the epistemic vice of overconfidence becomes the epistemic virtue of being a knowledgeable, well-trained philosophy student.

Contrast with the sciences. If a first-year chemistry student has strong, ignorant opinions about the electronegativity of fluorine, it won't go so well -- and who would have such opinions, anyway? Maybe at the most theoretically speculative end of the sciences, we can see a similar pattern, though. The social sciences and other humanities might also reward the overconfident student in some ways while punishing him in others. Among academic disciplines as practiced in the U.S., I conjecture that philosophy is the most receptive to the Overconfident Student Strategy.

Success in the Overconfident Student Strategy requires two things: a good sense of what is and is not open for dispute, and comfort in classroom dialogue. Both tend to favor students from privileged backgrounds.

It's ridiculous to dispute simple matters of fact with one's professor. The Overconfident Student Strategy only works if the student can sniff out a defensible position, one rich for back-and-forth dispute. Student X in our example immediately discerned that the conceivability argument for dualism was fertile ground on which to take a stand. Student X can follow his initial gut impression, knowing that even if he can't really win the argument on day two, arguments for his favored view are out there somewhere. Students with academically strong backgrounds -- who have a sense of how academia works, who have some exposure to philosophy earlier in their education, who are familiar with the back-and-forth of academic argumentation -- are at an advantage in sensing defensible positions and glimpsing what broad shapes an argument might take.

And of course speaking up in the classroom, especially being willing to disagree with one's professor, normally requires a certain degree of comfort and self-assurance in academic contexts. It helps if classrooms feel like home, if you feel like you belong, if you see yourself as maybe a professor yourself some day.

For these reasons -- as well as the more general tendency toward overconfidence that comes with social privilege -- we should expect that the Overconfident Student Strategy should be especially available to students with privileged backgrounds: the children of academics, wealthy students who went to elite high schools, White students, men, and non-immigrants, for example. In this way, initial privilege provides advantages that amplify up through one's education.

I have confined myself to remarks about the United States, because I suspect the sociology of overconfidence plays out differently in some other countries, which might explain the difficulty that international students sometimes have adapting to the style in which philosophy is practiced here.

I myself, of course, was just the sort of overconfident student I've described -- the son of two professors, raised in a wealthy suburb with great public schools. Arguably, I'm still employing the same strategy, opining publicly on my blog on a huge range of topics beyond my expertise (e.g., Hume interpretation last week, COVID ethics last month), reaping advantages analogous to the overconfident student's four classroom advantages, only in a larger sphere.

Coming up! Some strategies for evening the playing field.


Related: "On Being Good at Seeming Smart" (Mar 25, 2010).


Samantha Brennan said...

Fascinating. I was a shy philosophy student, not at all of the background you describe. I was also a first generation university student. Part of the attraction of philosophy at the time was that it didn't seem to involve vast cultural knowledge--classical music, art, languages, etc. It was okay just to be smart and work hard at figuring things out. I didn't ever speak in class until a professor wrote on my essay that I was freeriding! I was benefitting from all of the other students trying out their ideas and getting them shot down, learning lots, but not putting my views which were actually better, out there for examination. That argument worked and the professor used to call on me to describe views I'd argued for in essays. Over time I built up confidence even though I came from not the usual background, and I was often the only woman in the class. But yes, I recognize the overconfident student you describe from those classes and I can see how the way we engage with them might confer advantage. Thanks for writing this.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting, thanks! I especially like the thought about philosophy not requiring as much cultural knowledge as the arts and other humanities. Maybe so — and if so, then the advantages of privilege play out differently in different disciplines.

Anonymous said...

How should a teacher handle this kind of people?

Duane said...

I also think Samantha's point is important. The only thing I want to add besides acknowledging that is that there's probably some sub-discipline differences in the cultural knowledge barriers. Going to an above average but not elite public high school, I had to take some foreign language classes, but I never took them seriously and didn't really gain any competence with learning languages in general. At a middle-of-the-road public university for undergrad, I minored in German since I knew that many philosophy grad programs had a language requirement, and I did ok, but again nothing great. Then at age 26 I concluded I wanted to work on Aristotle, and suddenly I had to learn ancient Greek. That was bad enough, but as I continued in my specialized studies in ancient philosophy, I found that there was a high level of expectation that good students would, essentially, be polyglots. My fellow grad students in the joint philosophy/classics program who were on the classics side had to pass translation exams in Greek, Latin, and at least 2 living languages in addition to English. On the philosophy side you just had to have Greek and 1 living language besides English, which (to my good fortune) I wasn't tested on; they just assumed (incorrectly) that with a minor in German I already met that requirement. But even now when I'm publishing, I recently got a referee report that said "This paper does not engage with the non-Anglophone secondary literature. I would reject it on those grounds alone." Talking with many of my professors in ancient philosophy as a grad student, I found that many of them started learning both Greek and Latin before they were 10 years old, and often lived lives that involved traveling around Europe with family learning sufficient French, Italian, and/or German to be conversationally fluent. That is just an astronomically different world from that of a kid from the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa. So at least with history of philosophy (especially ancient), and perhaps some other fields as well (aesthetics?), there may be a whole additional layer of cultural knowledge that is expected, and very little realistic allowance is made for those who didn't live the sort of pre-college lives that would provide such knowledge.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Anon 11:42: I'm working on a follow-up post with advice for both students and profs.

Duane: Yikes! Not having traveled much in classics circles, I had no idea it was that extreme. In aesthetics, fortunately, there's a low-brow/middle-brow movement (e.g., Thi Nguyen on games), though to fully engage across the spectrum you'll have to know the high-brow stuff too.

Helen Han Wei Luo said...

This is really interesting! But if I understand correctly the characterization of 'the philosophy bro' - I'm inclined to disagree with this assessment of the strategic advantage of this classroom etiquette. It seems to me like that kind of confidence can only take a student so far, and becomes a hindrance even at the upper undergraduate level classes.

This is because I think part of effectively engaging with philosophy requires an understanding of productive interactive norms within the classroom. A student who doesn't know how to listen to his peers, who can't make *proper* use of corrections, who can't build on the ideas of others non-combatively, is just a person who isn't able to make use of a thriving intellectual environment. I won't say that confidence and feeling at ease in the classroom *isn't* an advantage, but it seems like overconfidence of this type often begins to hinder on actual philosophical self-development. For example, I can't imagine people being receptive to this kind of behaviour at a professional conference, or even at a graduate-level seminar.

Howard said...

Are most incarnations of this overconfident student like that in real life? Then they might share the life outcomes of the jerk or asshole.

Peter said...


I think it is reasonable to expect any scholar engaging with ancient texts to be able to read them, without constant use of a dictionary. And as harsh as it sounds, I think it is also reasonable to be able to read one or two "living" languages in order to be able to make the best possible use of the literature.

In Germany we for the longest time had state schools that actually taught Latin and Greek (and sometimes Hebrew). But those schools are dying a slow death: ancient languages are deemed elitist and the fact that they tend to filter out poor students better than any other subject runs counter to leftist dogma that we are all equally endowed. Ironically, this bars many young people from really learning these languages, adding to the perceived elitism.

. said...

thank you for writing! I'm an Indian, studying communication. since day 1 of college, what has annoyed me is those assertive, unthinking students. what's even more annoying is that they're actually marked well and really appreciated. it's a bunch of them, who come from an extremely privileged background - uppercast, cishet kids of diplomats. they're not only seen as "bright" for being able to speak (which, in my eyes, is mostly rubbish), but also thought of as people who would go on to do well.

chinaphil said...

This is intended as a provokation: I don't know if I really believe this point.
This post seems to assume that there is some abstract thing called intelligence, and that it would be legitimate for intelligence to affect how successful one is in philosophy. At the same time, it suggests that there is a thing called overconfidence, and it is illegitimate for overconfidence to influence one's level of success in philosophy. Perhaps that's wrong!
It's possible that aptitude for philosophy does inlcude a measure (maybe a very high measure) of intellectual confidence: willingness to expose one's ideas and have them subjected to scrutiny. (Point of comparison: it doesn't matter how good-looking you are, if you don't like having your picture taken, you're unlikely to be successful as a model; and that doesn't seem like an illegitimate obstacle.) So this kind of confidence is a valid factor in philosophical aptitude.
A caveat: At the undergraduate level, most participants will be still very early in their philosophical careers, and it is definitely right that an instructor should do their best to elicit philosophical aptitude which may not be immediately apparent. Even if I'm right, extra care and concern for those who don't visibly display their aptitude is still warranted. (As illustrated nicely by the experience of Samantha Brennan above.)
But I think it might be helpful to recast worries about the philosophy dudebro in terms of the potential harm that they do to other students (as suggested in the Onion piece), rather than invalidating their vocal approach to the subject.

Remis said...

I have the strong suspicion that Y type students develop a kind of Imposter Syndrome later in their careers, in that arguing in print for even sensible positions becomes a struggle, resulting in lower output and less publications than overconfident scholars and grifters in general...

Unknown said...

I wonder if the basis for the demographic attributions of third to last paragraph have any grounding beyond anecdote.

Sergio Graziosi said...

There is soooo much to say on this, enough to snap me out of lurk-mode (after years!).

First and foremost, about the whole system: school and University, pre- and post-grad all have a strong element of peer-to-peer competition. This pervades how institutions are shaped: the overall organising principle is indeed peer-to-peer competition, if you think about it.
The effect is that confidence is required and in turn, over-confidence is, without doubt, a tactical advantage over anyone who errs on the side of caution. What I'd like to stress is that the above applies to all disciplines and over the whole career spectrum. I do agree that in different disciplines confidence needs to be expressed in different ways, in order to provide advantages - as a student in biology, I learned pretty quickly how to use it, and yes, I do think that it might be easier in philosophy (but I don't know for sure!).

Conclusion so far is that hyper-competitive settings favour those with privileged backgrounds, and thus perpetuate inequality, no disagreement here (apart from my desire to extend the argument to all disciplines and all career levels!).

What is also very interesting is the consequence on how philosophy is done, though, which is very visible in Eric's own terms:

Being defeated in an argument with your professor burns that argument into your memory. So also does winning an argument or playing to a draw.

Arguments are won, lost or drawn(?). Whoever lost, will go home, think about it, find better arguments, and be better prepared for battle the next time round. I don't believe I'm the only one who thinks this pattern is wasteful and itself a big, big incentive of the wrong type. It inherently selects for overconfidence and leads to entrenched positions, as if they were the default state of affairs. They are not.

People exchange ideas and learn from one another - disagreements are, by definition, a chance for at least one of the participants to learn something, and often, for both.
Good, thoughtful people conceptualise them in this way: an exchange. Things don't get destroyed, in the exchange, ideas grow instead. Discussions amongst peers are the quintessential example of non-zero-sum games, where everyone can win. By contrast, competitive arguments have winners and losers, promote the epistemic sin of over-confidence and systematically provide advantages to whoever starts from a privileged position.
I guess that the point I want to make is that we should always strongly object to the confrontational reading of arguments, and concurrently, point out that knowledge transmission (education) and knowledge production (research) should not use competition as the primary force that shapes their structure. Because doing so has the same effect: promotes an epistemic sin (i.e. the opposite of what you want, when it comes to knowledge) and systematically reinforces pre-existing privileges.

Finally, the fact that knowledge transmission and knowledge production are organised in exactly the wrong way is not by chance: power structures that last (i.e. the things that sustain pre-existing privileges) last because they are able to self-sustain. And that's what they are doing: by organising both education and research almost exclusively around peer-competition, they systematically reinforce pre-existing privileges (and thus, themselves). This is natural selection in action: it doesn't even require anyone to deliberately "design" such systems...

Cathy Legg said...

Just wait til those 2 students go on the job market...

Matti Meikäläinen said...

Ah, youth! Perhaps if our Professor considered law school or business school that might have been a more effective use for his particular temperament. :-) The ancients considered adolescence as a mild form of insanity. Aristotle said, “youth are heated by nature as a drunk by wine.” Socrates complained that the youth are inclined to “tyrannize their teachers.” Or, perhaps a gap-year or two (or the army) before to grad school might have helped. Thankfully such characters were fairly rare in my philosophy seminars—but that was a lifetime ago. I think the prevalence of this—often male—student is also an argument for the continued relevance of women’s colleges!

Alex P said...

I'm not sure how sincere the claim about epistemic virtue is. If it's sincere, then this seems to bring out limitations of thinking about philosophy as an individual pursuit. It seems to me that we're engaged in collective inquiry, and that this kind of overconfident monopoly stifles voices that would otherwise contribute to, and further, our intellectual goals. So it doesn't seem like a virtue at all. (There's also a question about whether we can acquire virtues through less-than-virtuous practices, but I humbly leave that for someone who knows more about virtue theory than me.)

Anonymous said...

As soon as I began reading this piece, I knew there would be a flock of comments! Delightful. Social privilege is a mixed blessing at times. I did not have it but did not worry much over that. Fact-of-matter, I still don't. I will reiterate an observation which is likely in the many views expressed. There are few women in philosophy. Not sure this is about social privilege as much as custom, culture and tradition. I appreciate the views of those I have read.

Anonymous said...

Well, if it's any consolation, philosophy majors aren't exactly privileged regarding post-graduation salaries.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks! Responses to a portion:

Helen: Yes, it does seem to me that there's probably a sweet spot of too much overconfidence that becomes counterproductive in the way you suggest.

Chinaphil: I actually don't think there's a single abstract thing, "intelligence", and I hope that the post didn't depend on that idea despite the use of the word. (I'm always somewhat hesitant to use that word but it seemed useful in context.) I like your point about framing it in terms of harm to other students.

Remis: Yes, very much related to imposter syndrome, I think, for the Type Y students.

Sergio: I'm inclined to agree with both of your main points. Probably there are versions of this in many disciplines and professions. On the win/lose/draw thing, right, that's probably too combative a way to see it, and I somewhat regret framing it that way now that you point out the issue.

Alex P: I did mean the thing about epistemic virtue sincerely, but also you are surely right about the disadvantages to others and the consequent harms to philosophy as a collective enterprise. Student X's epistemic success is sometimes built in part on harms to other students.

Sergio Graziosi said...

Eric: for what it's worth, I think your use of "win, lose, draw" is 100% correct, in context. Describes the outcome of such interactions in the way in which they are likely to be perceived by the students/people you describe.

Thus, they are likely to reflect how people who are successful (get to be "professors") also perceive them, and as described, the system becomes "stable" on its own, without deliberate efforts.
Professors tend to read academic discussions as arguments with winners and losers, and will thus tend to encourage such a combative attitude, etc. etc...

I was actually grateful you did use these concepts, made it possible for me to write a "less long" comment! ;-)

Vanitas said...

This largely describes me in Grad School, though I wasn't combative with other grads, just with the profs. However, I'd strongly suggest that this doesn't win you many favors from professors, especially those in high-prestige institutions. At many such institutions you are not *expected* to form strong opinions until year 4, as you must "percolate" and "ruminate" endlessly on the texts read by your Betters before you have earned the right to confidence. I had a Year 4 progress report that virtually said this: "He has too much conviction, needs to slow down, this is a problem," blah blah blah, as I was churning out publications and speaking at conferences and acquiring professional success partly because of precisely the epistemic advantages you highlight here. You can be too self-motivated in this field, at least for some.

Anonymous said...

Counter-theory: The system rewards the socially privileged, not overconfident, student.

One worrisome implication of this post's theory (against "overconfidence") is the suggestion that professors should keep apparently overconfident students in their place. This conservative impulse might amplify, rather than reduce, the impact of social privilege.

As one example, consider that in academia, professors' children acquire early privileges and are vastly overrepresented in the academy, Those children may seem, to professors, to be aptly (not overly) confident. Children of academics know hidden rules, have opportunities to test their ideas at home, etc. Targeting the "apparently overconfident" may exacerbate some of the disparities that this post aims to reduce.

TruePath said...

Yes, those features end up giving such students some advantage. But how is that any different than the fact that being good at reading lots of material, having a good understanding of the language or the like benefit one as a student? I mean I could equally well point out that some students (such as myself in days past) find it much harder than others to stay focused on the conversation or on the reading and that it's those students who often need to go in on the talking to make up for that.

Ultimately, we all come to the table with strengths and weaknesses. ANY choices we make about how to teach and even who gets jobs will be unfair. Indeed, even the idea of jobs going to those who are better at philosophy is unfair. What we can ask is whether those choices are effective ways of producing better philosophy (the only reason ppl who produce more philosophy should get the jobs or special classes etc).

Maybe one can argue this effect reduces that quality but I'm skeptical. Other things being equal I suspect that being inclined to publicly suggest, voice and argue views correlates with skills that help reach philosophical truth more quickly.

I could be wrong about that and I welcome a systematic analysis of what does and doesn't work best to achieve the desired goals.

However, what seems deeply misguided is the inconsistent application of this sense of fairness where we treat certain traits (like being able to concentrate on the reading or even being a good writer) as 'fair' reasons for students to do better and other traits like willingness to throw out ideas or risk being wrong in public which equally well are important in professional philosophy as unfair reasons for an advantage.

TruePath said...

I guess I should lay my cards on the table and explain why I find this suggestion particularly upsetting.

For whatever reason (ADHD something) my brain is setup in a way that I simply can't learn from quietly listening to a lecture. The only classes I ever attended in college were philosophy classes (pretty much literally, the term I took none I didn't attend a single lecture/section...luckily my college didn't care about stuff like attendance) because in those classes I could follow the material *by* engaging with it in exactly the manner you describe. Those instructors always took care to ensure that other students had a chance to speak (I was at a tech school where quite a few, but not all, of the other students were equally talkative) but if they'd tried to compensate for this unfairness issue you mention I wouldn't have been able to get anything out of those classes (I could learn math and physics from the textbook less philosophy).

So yes, it's an advantage but it seems utterly unfair and wrong to pick on one advantage and deny it to those students when we happily let students with other advantages (e.g. being able to concentrate and learn by watching lecture quietly) take full advantage of those.

SelfAwarePatterns said...

An interesting post Eric, mostly because college classes are far from the only place these kinds of individuals exist. They almost always exist, for instance, in any vigorous internet discussion.

With that in mind, one key question jumped out at me while reading this, and it's along the lines of your final comments in the post. How do we know in any particular situation that we're not that guy? (I should admit that as a blogger and frequent commenter, I've been accused of being that guy many times, I'm sure at least sometimes accurately.)

Aside from simply engaging with those who disagree with us, I think the best answer is to never give in to the temptation to reject an idea just because it seems obviously absurd or ridiculous. Or accept one because it's obviously right and true. Doing so is too often just an expression of our existing biases.

The innoculation, I think, is to do what our math teacher always forced us to do. Show our work. Go over the logical steps we use to arrive at our conclusion. Often just the preparatory effort will show that our initial gut reaction was wrong. But if it doesn't, and we're brave enough to put that work out there, those who disagree with us will find any chinks in the armor.

Of course, it's entirely possible I'm overconfident about this strategy.


David Duffy said...

The paper just out by Reilly and others

shows their male first year university students estimated their own IQs at 9 points higher than the females (the actual IQ difference was not significantly different from zero).

Kaplan Family said...

you are correct!

Anonymous said...

Long ago, I was at a conference involving postgrad students at which a panel of eminent established philosophy profs offered an 'ask me anything' session.

After some more-or-less interesting philosophical questions, came

"Why are you all men?"

... Some embarrassed chuckles, scuffling of feet. Then this:

"To be a successful academic philosopher, you need to learn to engage with and understand some of the greatest thinkers the human race has ever produced, then disagree with them, in public. This requires, for a start, a large helping of unjustified, overweening self-confidence. Which is a mainly male character trait."

-- Is it still, I sometimes wonder?

Anonymous said...

I wasn't an undergrad in the US, but I was definitely the overconfident student in my cohort. Where did this overconfidence come from? I don't think it sprung out from my dangling manhood, but more due to me reading all the material coming prepared, and writing excellent papers (and enjoying the back and forth of sound argumentation). I had no prior experience in philosophy, educated parents, or expensive education.
There was definitely a strain of professors who liked this overconfidence, and there was a strain of professors (mostly educated in top US departments) who much rather have docile and average students who don't truly engage. The problem was the latter tend to sanction you inside\outside of the classroom for the crime of being confident.

Maybe we should discuss the "shy philosophy professors" with their slapdash sociological analysis.

Brock said...

This phenomenon strikes me as very similar to the well-known birthday effect in sports, where people who are born shortly after the arbitrary cut-off date for elementary school sports end up being overrepresented in higher level (college and professional) sports. Children who areborn shortly after the cutoff date will be, on average, six months older than their teammates, giving them a significant advantages over their teammates. This in turn translates to more playing time and more attention from coaches, leading to advantages later on.

Anonymous said...

Would you still offer graduate students this advice?

"It's better to have two professors who say you are the most impressive student they've seen in several years than to have four professors who say you are one of the three best students this year. ... academia is generally about standing out for unusual excellence in one or two endeavors"

"(3.) Ask for favors from those above you in the hierarchy."

"(4.) Think beyond the requirements....If you then chat in an informed way with the professor ... about the six articles you just discovered and read... you will stand out as an unusually passionate and active student."

Arnold said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greg Stoutenburg said...

What benefits are there to being an *overconfident*, highly-active philosophy student that don't accrue simply to being a highly-active philosophy student?

As I read this, it seems like the phenomenon comes down to something we teachers encourage: students who participate in discussion benefit from it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks! Lots of responses here -- also on Facebook and Twitter. To pick up just a couple:

Anon Mar 15 11:26 and TruePath: I do think we should support these students, not pick on them. However, it's also the case that they can crowd out the shy students in a way that puts the shy at an unfortunate disadvantage. As a professor, it's a balancing act between encouraging the enthusiasm and interest of the overconfident, talkative student and ensuring that others are also encouraged to participate and don't feel cowed or backseated.

Duffy / Anon Mar 16 01:00: I suspect this is still gendered. Maybe less so than in earlier decades.

Anon Mar 16 06:41: Yes, I stand by that advice. Being overconfident -- at least to the right degree -- is a successful strategy (though not the only one).

Greg: Being active is good, yes! Overconfidence is one route to activity, though not the only one. I do also think there is a particularly vivid emotional psychology behind taking a stand you feel confident in and being willing to stick with it against the professor's objections that is both (a.) hard to do without being more confident that you're correct than you probably should be and (b.) drives emotional engagement and memory better than more neutral question-asking.

Anonymous said...

As I read the post I thought: finally someone's talking about this! (I'm sure Eric, and other people too, have already discussed similar topics earlier - but as someone who has spent four years in grad school, I personally have never heard anyone discussing this.)

I am at a somewhat-elite philosophy grad program in the US. I think overconfidence (or something in the vicinity) pays in grad programs as well, or at least in mine. My experience is that, as people have suggested, someone who comes off as arrogant (as described in Eric's article) would not be rewarded. However, I think there is still something more subtle going on. Here are some events that I've been part of:

1. We're in a course that does not focus on the "hardcore" area X. A grad student S, who specializes in X, very often raises very specific questions/concerns from X. Most students at the seminar cannot follow what S is talking about. I, as someone who's studied X a little bit, can tell that S's questions are often only loosely relevant. However, the knowledgeable professor seems quite impressed by S's background in X, and always reponds in a encouraging and charitable manner. S gradually becomes even more confident, and becomes someone the professor respects and is proud of. Other students who are less confident feel more difficult to raise questions in the seminar, and worry that the professor would favor S to themselves when it comes to dissertation advising etc.

2. In a training event, grad students and professors are discussing how to make philosophy classrooms more inclusive to shy and unconfident students. Professor and confident grad students keep talking about how they will reward and encourage students who speak more in class, and possibly penalize students who do not speak. I, as a shy and unconfident student, sit quietly at the meeting - no one seems to care what I think, which is precisely why I hesitate to speak in meetings and in seminars.

Arnold said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jake Beardsley said...

Since you've been in many more philosophy classrooms than I have, I'm not extremely confident in the point I'm about to make, but I'll say it anyway. The short version is that I think the dynamic you're talking about exists, but that it's more likely to benefit appropriately confident students than overconfident ones.

As Helen pointed out, there are serious costs to being "that guy." I think that these guys have the emotional experience of getting a lot out of their philosophy classes, but that they're probably learning less than the students who know that this behavior is inappropriate. I'm sure *some* of them are capable enough to be good PhD candidates, but in my classroom experience, overconfidence seemed to be anticorrelated with philosophical ability: Among the subset of students who spoke up in class, overconfident people made worse arguments than their peers. I never once had the thought, "This guy has a lot of good ideas, but I wish he were more polite."

I think you're right, though, that this dynamic unfairly benefits students who feel the most at home in a college classroom. This is troubling because, given the way that American undergrad courses currently work, informed class participation is a virtue. Students who do the reading and then make thoughtful comments in class seem to be helping, so it's pretty bad news if this behavior serves to marginalize students who, for whatever reason, have a harder time speaking up in class.

(I'm not sure I completely believe your assessment of yourself in undergrad! I believe that you argued with professors a lot, but I would bet that your comments were a lot better than the ones I'm used to.)

Mark Farmer said...

Your post resonates in many ways with susan Cain’s 2012 work, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (2012). She demonstrates how American society has come to idealize the extroverted personality and to ignore the strengths that introverts bring to the table. Her aim is to motivate introverts to own our natural temperament and play to our strengths, such as deep thinking, identifying and avoiding unnecessary risks, high awareness of context. Introverts do need to learn to speak up, just as extroverts often need to learn to listen.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks, and sorry for my slow reply!

Anon Mar 16: Yes, both of your observations seem right to me.

Jake: It seems likely that one can be harmed by extreme overconfidence in these context. There's probably a sweet spot of some overconfidence but not too much. I'd disagree that confidence and ability are anticorrelated though. My estimate is that there's a positive correlation in the sense that the more advanced, committed, and knowledgeable students also tend, on average, to be the more confident ones; but the correlation is far from perfect.

Mark: That sounds plausible. Thanks for suggesting her work!

Anonymous said...

I think there are students as you describe, but its also likely that you are on occasion mixing this students in with those who are genuinley passionate about verbally explaining and engaing with the material without necessarily being interested in competition or appearances. I'm probably one of the students you are referring to, and while I come from a fairly priviliged background, I am by no means 'overconfident', especially seeing as I need two beta blockers to speak publicly without having a panic attack. I am also a woman and ethnic minority.

I love philosophy, and I know that my career opportunities after uni are not great. So naturally I am determined to learn and do as best as I can at school, and I have found that asking questions and having conversations is a great method for improving at philosophy (or is it just me?). I don't argue, I don't think I can devise a novel refutation of Descartes, or even my prof, at my 11:00 Early Modern lecture. I also don't see it as much of a competition, in the way that poli-sci classes filled with law school hopefuls can be. I just like having class discussions where I can ask my teachers and classmates questions, because I prefer treating philosophy as a collaborative intellectual effort. (covid was hard, as you can imagine.)

So I'm not particularly overconfident, nor do I harm other students in the sense that I am trying to intellectually 'out-do' them. Although I'll grant that students with a natural aversion to class discussion, and/or who just don't like philosophy as much as I do, probably find it abnoxious or intimidating, as some of your commenters do.

Is the fact that I love philosophy a product of privilege? In some respects, probably. But I am not a good philosopher merely because I have put my "irrational overconfidence" to good use. I think that when you come across students who like piping up in class, you can assume that at least a few of them are simply doing it because they are passionate about the same things you are.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Mar 28: Yes, this makes sense to me! It sounds like you’re already doing the things I recommend in my follow up post. Great!