Deconstructing the Power of Overconfidence

Overconfidence. The word itself is irritating. Knowing that it often works is infuriating.

We’d prefer to believe that, like pride, overconfidence will reliably trip and stumble its way to a predictable fall and clear the path for those with level-headed confidence, gilded with humility, to climb the ladder. But that isn’t how it even usually goes.

Psychology research has often asked why that is, and churned up a few possible answers. A 2012 study concluded that even when overconfidence produces subpar results, its charm still wins the day. We might expect someone with more confidence than ability to underperform when pressed. The study tested that expectation and found it more or less accurate—but also found that it really doesn’t matter. Overconfidence may not deliver when objectively tested, but it has a knack for seducing people to such a degree that they ignore the results in favor of keeping the golden child on a pedestal.

If you had to isolate why this happens, it appears to come down to a matter of status—a commodity that overconfidence is expert at creating and nurturing. When managed well, the social status conferred by overconfidence has an aura just shy of magical, capable of keeping our attention diverted from measurable results.

That’s a jarringly paradoxical conclusion when you consider the average person’s gut reaction to "that overconfident jerk." How can we be both repulsed and seduced by the same thing? The question gets stranger in light of another study showing how even rudeness gets a pass if a person’s overconfidence has already alchemized sufficient status.

In one of the study’s experiments, participants watched a video of a man at a sidewalk café put his feet on another chair, tap cigarette ashes on the ground and rudely order a meal. Participants rated the man as more likely to “get to make decisions” and able to “get people to listen to what he says” than participants who saw a different video of the same man behaving politely. Through a few other experiments in the study, the same results prevailed—people tended to rate the rule breakers as more in control and more powerful than people who toed the line.

And what’s the essential ingredient in believing oneself to be above the rules? Overconfidence, of course. (This may also help explain why rude sales associates outsell others at luxury stores.)

Those studies circle the question of why we’re prone to falling for the chutzpah of overconfidence, but say little about why the overconfident are so good at pulling it off. The most recent study on the subject has an answer that’s not likely to lessen our irritation, but, irritatingly, it makes some sense, and can be summarized like this: Belief sells, whether it’s true or not. In the case of overconfidence, the belief in one’s ability—however out of proportion to reality—generates its own infectious energy. Self-deception is a potent means of convincing the world to see things your way.

Participants in the study (a group of college students) were asked to rate their own and their peers' abilities at the beginning of a 6-week course. About half were under-confident and a little less than half were overconfident (with the small balance of students accurately judging their abilities). They were then asked to reassess at the end of the course, after everyone had a chance to perform and real results were there for all to see.

The study showed that at the start of the course, overconfident students received higher peer ratings—and at the end of the course, regardless of how well or poorly they did, the overconfident students were still rated higher than others. In effect, the students' actual performance hardly mattered compared to the seductive signals sent by those believing they were the best.

This study added the wrinkle of gauging participants’ level of self-deception about their abilities, and found a strong correlation between the social sway of overconfidence and depth of self-deception. As the researchers summed it up, “Our findings suggest that people may not always reward the more accomplished individual but rather the more self-deceived.”

We may not like that conclusion, but it’s difficult to argue that it isn’t in evidence around us every day. People who don’t believe in themselves—whether that belief is well-grounded or not—aren’t likely to convince others to buy in. That’s partly what the psychological dynamic of self-efficacy is about: If you expect others to think you’re capable, you’d better believe it yourself. That's as true for healthy confidence as it is for its inflated alter-ego.

What the latest study and elements of the others are telling us is that self-deception is an especially potent brand of status fertilizer. When packaged with personality, it makes others want to believe even when the results would counsel otherwise. And though that doesn’t make the topic any less infuriating, it does throw some light on what makes overconfidence effective, despite its reputation.

The latest study was published in the online journal PLOS One

You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrativeForbes, TIME and Psychology Today. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.

Posted on November 15, 2014 .