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The Undeniable, Unfair Advantages of Overconfidence

Unjustified confidence has risks… outweighed by the benefits. At least for men.

Robert Roy Britt
May 31, 2019 · 9 min read

verconfidence is everywhere. You know the worst offenders. The arrogant boss. The know-it-all in a social group. The mansplainer. But it’s not just them.

Studies going back decades find most people tend to overestimate their own abilities, and those with lesser skill or acumen are more apt to have a more inflated self-view than those who actually can do. Yet overconfidence comes with risks, from being found out and embarrassed to making uninformed, terrible, costly decisions, as documented in other research.

So why do we do it? Scientists have this pretty well figured out, and the latest research has begun to grasp the differences in how people perceive confidence in men vs. women, along with showing how anyone can create a greater perception of competence through displays of overconfidence while avoiding the potential pitfalls. When applying for a job, leading a group or maintaining upper-class status, unjustified confidence has definite advantages, research shows, and this overconfidence doesn’t seem to bother people too much when they sniff it out in someone else.

A 2012 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology tested a group of students on whether they’d heard of certain historical figures, including some fake names. Those who picked the highest number of fake names were deemed to be the most overconfident. In surveys later in the semester they were also found to have attained the highest social status in their peer groups.

“This overconfidence did not come across as narcissistic,” says study co-author Cameron Anderson of the University of Southern California, Berkeley. “The most overconfident people were considered the most beloved.”

New research led by Peter Belmi, a University of Virginia researcher, helps explain where overconfidence comes from and why it persists.

“Advantages beget advantages,” says Belmi who, in a series of new experiments, finds that unjustified confidence isn’t just beneficial, it’s self-perpetuating. “Those who are born in upper-class echelons are likely to remain in the upper class, and high-earning entrepreneurs disproportionately originate from highly educated, well-to-do families.”

Money Talks

In one of the Belmi’s experiments, 236 undergrad students took a 15-question trivia test and were then asked to predict how well they did compared to others.

Students with family incomes greater than $300,000 placed themselves in the 60th percentile, Belmi explains. In reality, those students scored in the 48th percentile. On the flip side, students with a household income of $40,000 or less placed themselves in the 47th percentile, yet actually scored in the 55th percentile. The results showed increased confidence all along the income spectrum, from poor to middle class to wealthy.

Later, those same students were videotaped in mock job interviews. More than 900 judges, recruited online, evaluated the applicants’ competence.

“Individuals with relatively high social class were more overconfident, which in turn was associated with being perceived as more competent and ultimately more hirable, even though, on average, they were no better at the trivia test than their lower-class counterparts,” Belmi says.

The results of this and three other investigations with similar findings are detailed May 20 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“Our research suggests that social class shapes the attitudes that people hold about their abilities and that, in turn, has important implications for how class hierarchies perpetuate from one generation to the next,” Belmi says.

He figures the differences in unjustified confidence stem at least in part from the values people hold.

“In the middle class, people are socialized to differentiate themselves from others, to express what they think and feel and to confidently express their ideas and opinions, even when they lack accurate knowledge,” he says. “By contrast, working-class people are socialized to embrace the values of humility, authenticity and knowing your place in the hierarchy,” he said. “These findings challenge the widely held belief that everybody thinks they are better than the average. Our results suggest that this type of thinking might be more prevalent among the middle and upper classes.”

There’s also a gender difference, though overall the research is less conclusive on this, and his study was not designed specifically to look at that equation.

“Men tend to be more overconfident than women,” Belmi says in an email. Why? One reason, he figures, is old-fashioned norms which, as anyone not living on Mars lately knows, are changing, if grudgingly for some.

“In the U.S., we expect men to be bold, confident, and assertive, whereas with women, we expect them to be humble, yielding, and apologetic,” Belmi says, not implying how things should be but how they still largely are, particularly in male-run work environments. “And I think there can be real costs for women when they display unfounded confidence. I think external audiences might be more willing to forgive an overconfident man than an overconfident woman.”

The Confidence Gap?

The apparent confidence gap between men and women has been widely studied and seemingly well documented, including by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know.

“Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in,” they write. “Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back.”

Anyone who’s paid close attention a business meeting — or a gathering of just about any sort — has seen the supposed evidence. Talented and experienced women often sit quietly and just listen or speak infrequently, while less-qualified men, some even bordering on buffoonery, jump in boldly and dominate the direction of the conversation and the conclusions reached.

It’s logical to assume there’s a gender-based confidence gap.

But in some of the latest research on the topic, Laura Guillen of the European School of Management and Technology and her colleagues question the whole premise. After analyzing data from an unnamed global technology company, they posit that men and women in male-dominated, achievement-oriented environments have similar levels of self-confidence. And when men perform well and appear to others as self-confident, they gain influence in an organization.

“In contrast, high-performing women gained influence only when their self-confidence appearance was coupled with prosocial orientation,” including perceptions of warmth and empathy, the researchers conclude in a paper in the journal Human Resource Management.

“Moreover, women’s self-reported confidence did not correlate with how confident these women appeared to others,” Guillen writes in the Harvard Business Review. “While self-confidence is gender-neutral, the consequences of appearing self-confident are not.”

All this can have significant impact on individual careers, Guillen explains in an email:

“Perceptions of others‘ self-confidence (or self-confidence appearance) impact how we evaluate (promote and reward) people. Managers need to understand if they have systematic biases forming impressions of others’ self-confidence. Moreover, they have to understand that HR-related decisions are based on their self-confidence perceptions.”

Put another way, the real gender bias is in how power and influence are achieved, Guillen argues, and women can’t lean in “on a structure that cannot support their weight.” A woman must be sure of herself yet appear modest, lest she be perceived as less likable and suffer a backlash, the thinking goes. In fact another study, published last year in the journal Psychological Reports, found that women are indeed uncomfortable with self-promotion exactly because they fear such a backlash.

The Cost of Overconfidence

Meanwhile, unfounded confidence can be a two-edged sword for anyone, regardless of gender, with implications well beyond the individual, exacting a price in everything from finance to health, other research shows.

  • A study in Applied Economic Letters found that overconfidence gained by a little success in the stock market can lead people to purchase shares at exactly the wrong time — when prices top out.
  • Research last year in Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis found that overconfident CEOs — measured by how much stock they held in their own companies — are 33 percent more likely to get sued by shareholders compared to CEOs with normal confidence.
  • Phishing scams succeed in part because people are overly confident about their ability to recognize fact from fiction, according to a study that used real and fake emails to test people’s reactions. “Many times, people think they know more than they actually do, and are smarter than someone trying to pull off a scam via an email,” says study leader H.R. Rao, a cybersecurity researcher at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
  • When asked if they could counsel patients on nutrition recommendations, more than 55 percent of 257 medical students expressed confidence, but half did not achieve a passing score on a nutrition quiz, researchers reported in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.
  • People in general “tend to believe their personal risk of becoming ill from food poisoning, SARS or HIV… is lower than other peoples’ risks,” David Dunning, a now-retired psychology professor from Cornell University, said clear back in 2005.

Dunning spent decades researching what fuels unfounded confidence.

“Students consistently think they’ve done better on exams than they really have, and surgical residents think they can perform procedures much better than their supervisors think the residents can,” Dunning said back then. “Likewise, from the office cubicle to the executive boardroom, people tend to hold overly inflated self-views that are only modestly related to actual performance.”

More recently, Dunning and a colleague, Carmen Sanchez, showed just how quickly people go from admitted no-nothings to know-it-alls. People who know zip about a new challenge tend to be “perfectly conscious and cautious about what they don’t know,” the researcher write. But then: “A little experience replaces their caution with a false sense of competence.”

Sanchez and Dunning administered a series of difficult tests. People started out figuring they were right half the time, when they were actually correct 55% of the time. After just a few rounds, “their confidence began skyrocketing, far ahead of any accuracy they achieved,” the researchers wrote last year in the Harvard Business Review. “Soon, participants estimated their accuracy rate was 73% when it had not hit even 60%.”

With all this knowledge about the vast trove of things each of us doesn’t know, you’d think we’d learn.

But overconfidence is often about ignorance, not arrogance, Dunning and another colleague, Deanna Caputo, concluded back in 2005. People know what they know and aren’t aware of what they don’t know. When told of knowledge gaps, study subjects often give those new facts equal consideration in their subsequent decision-making, their research finds.

What Can You Do?

For people who lack confidence, or have plenty of it but think maybe they don’t exhibit it to ultimate benefit, there are science-based strategies to employ.

“You can do small things to move that needle,” Belmi says. “Exercising, writing affirmations, and even helping others can make us feel good about ourselves.” Yes, exercise can boost self-esteem, studies have shown.

At least as important, given what scientists now know about appearances, you can work on your perceived confidence, which is apt to affect your perceived competence.

”In social groups, speak up more,” Belmi advises. “Those who talk a lot in social groups are seen as smarter. And when you speak, take your time. Be calm and relaxed. Use a factual vocal tone. Avoid hedging. Dress well. Use your body to take up space.”

These nonverbal tactics can be especially useful. Nathan Meikle, who studies management and organization at the University of Notre Dame, has studied specifically how nonverbal expressions of confidence can earn you status and influence and provide plausible deniability if you’re found guilty of any unjustified confidence.

Meikle led a series of experiments in which people met potential collaborators or advisers and decided who they trusted most. The confident candidates overwhelmingly got the nods. Until, that is, the truth was revealed about their competence, after which the more cautious candidates won out.

“Interestingly, though, we found that if the overly confident candidates expressed their confidence nonverbally, they remained the most trusted and desirable choice, even when revealed to be over-the-top,” Meikle says.

“Expressing confidence nonverbally through making eye contact, gesturing, adopting an expansive posture [arms and legs out, firm handshake] or speaking in a strong voice allows people to enjoy the social benefits of expressing confidence while simultaneously reducing the risk they’ll be punished for overconfidence,” Meikle and colleagues write in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“Justified confidence will virtually always lead to enhanced status and influence,” Meikle says in an email. “Unjustified confidence will be punished… but it can be so hard to be certain that someone’s confidence is unjustified.”

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Robert Roy Britt

Written by

Explainer of things, independent health and science journalist, author, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience and Space dot com.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

Robert Roy Britt

Written by

Explainer of things, independent health and science journalist, author, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience and Space dot com.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

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