The Physics of Unfounded Confidence

The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error. Bertolt Brecht

I remember having a conversation in Florida, during the summer of 2006, with a doctor who had practiced internal medicine for over thirty years. He mentioned that most physician errors were caused by over-confidence (when a practitioner’s assumed mastery is taken for granted and vigilant attention to detail becomes a procedural nuisance). Regardless of whether a consensus of agreement in general medicine can be established with this anecdote, the inherent principle remains sound and the indispensable lesson could apply to any professional responsibility (i.e., air-traffic control, surgery, bus driving, construction work). World history is littered with egregious errors and unpredicted disasters caused when impudence, often unintentionally, trumps attentiveness. Although the tedium of daily routine can anesthetize our capacity for maintaining scrutiny and lead to human error, unfounded confidence anesthetizes our ability to be honest about the role of hubris in lamentable outcomes. Much has been written in psychology about problems stemming from low self-esteem and how compromised autonomy induces co-dependence, but too much self-esteem, built on a bedrock of infallibility, is equally problematic.

On July 17, 1981 in Kansas City, Missouri, two hotel walkways inside a newly built Hyatt Regency hotel collapsed and killed 114 people below while severely injuring an additional 219 bystanders. Considered one of the deadliest structural collapses in U.S. history, the cause was a blunder in construction due to a last-minute design change in the walkway’s support structures (tie rods). Essentially, the contractor rejected the original architectural specifications, thus resulting in the layout of a fourth-floor walkway with insufficient load capacity being strategically aligned above the second-floor walkway. The fourth-floor walkway was barely able to support its own weightlet alone able to carry the suspended weight of the second-floor walkway or the weight of additional hotel occupants. Unfortunately, the law of gravity became predominant as both walkways collapsed onto the lower lobby and pulverized those unlucky enough to be nearby. A lack of communication between the project contractor and the architectural firm, combined with a presumptuous interpretation of the original blueprints, is determined to be the primary “downfall.” Thankfully, not every human error based on overconfidence results in such mayhem, but excessive confidence can be a potential liabilityespecially when that confidence is unfounded (i.e., not based on empirical reliability or sufficient arbitration).

Situational physics is a term I like to employ when hearing about horrendous accidents that could have been prevented with proper circumspection. To be less opaque, no one is exempt from the laws of physics and if your behavior or thought process allows you to create or become vulnerable to a perilous situation, the consequences are simply subordinate to those inviolable laws. From drunk driving to sending text messages while standing in the streets during the San Fermín festival; if you think you’re incapable of contributing to misfortune or assume you’re immune to danger, your level of confidence would probably benefit from a gas-powered lowering device.

As they say, “shit happens,” but it doesn’t have to happen with such formidable frequency if we pay closer attention to our modus operandi.