The Pros and Cons of Overconfidence

All of us think that we’re more “special” and capable than we are. This phenomenon has many different names in the psychological literature, but my personal favorite is “The Lake Wobegon effect” – a reference to a mythical town where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."

The Pros and Cons of Overconfidence

All of us think that we’re more “special” and capable than we are. This phenomenon has many different names in the psychological literature, but my personal favorite is “The Lake Wobegon effect” – a reference to a mythical town where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."


Given the fact that every single organism in the world is fighting to survive and propagate, it makes sense that a tremendous, even overblown, sense of confidence would be a biological imperative. While survival by tooth and claw is the name of the game in the non-human world, survival by war and wit is the name of the game in the human realm. Thus, in our modern developed lives, we mainly compete socially and intellectually. And, in the social world, it is often the most confident and collected individual that “wins” – gaining friends, status, and the trappings that come with each. Therefore, it makes sense that each of us would be born with an overblown sense of self-regard.

But this extreme confidence and self love has a dark side - it can prevent us from building an accurate understanding of the world. Instead of listening attentively and carefully to the observations and realizations of others, our overconfidence can push us to discount their statements as mere fallacy or BS. Thus we get stuck in our mental models of how things work. While aspects of our perspective may be more accurate than theirs, we can always refine our understanding of the world a bit by listening attentively to the perspectives of others. This process of listening and observing, repeated over decades, is how we come to wisdom in older age.

This process is also how great scientific minds come to realize and codify fundamental truths. Through a never-ending process of collecting new, better data and perspectives, scientists are able to construct more and more predictive models of the world. While many practitioners of the scientific method are, indeed, also victims of the Lake Wobegon Effect, the best scientists I’ve ever encountered have been quite coy to express their credentials or authority on the topic at hand. Instead, they’ve patiently listened to whatever conversation is occurring, interjecting their knowledge when necessary or productive. These conversations, even with neophytes, were perfect opportunities for them to gain a sense of how others saw the world. And these visions from other people could sometimes contain new truths awaiting exploration by the scientific method.

So as we can see, the Lake Wobegon Effect has substantial advantages in parts of our personal and social lives. But in the never-ending quest for truth, it can be quite a shackle. Thus, the question becomes: Can we learn how to turn it on and off? Is this something that we can control for our own purposes? Surely all of us have been in situations in which we thought a bit of self delusion could help. But until we discover psychological methods of gaining control over this part of our perception, we’ll have to just move forward overconfidently into the future – and make sure we stop, begrudgingly, from time to time to listen to the insights and perspectives of others. At least until we can move to this gorgeous place called Lake Wobegon.

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Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
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  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
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An impression of NASA's Cassini spacecraft flying through a water plume on the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
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CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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