While hiking with his wife at Mount Tamalpais State Park one day, UC Berkeley Associate Professor Cameron Anderson could not get something out of his mind.
A woman he knew had an irritating habit — one that was fairly common but irksome nonetheless. She always had to be right. He could not help but wonder why someone would be motivated to act in such a manner.
“It then struck me that, to her, the important thing was to be perceived by others as smart and knowledgeable,” Anderson, who teaches at the Haas School of Business, said in an email. “That thought led me to speculate that overconfidence in general — or the tendency to perceive yourself as more competent than you actually are — might be driven by the desire for status.”
Anderson’s musings led him to investigate the phenomenon in a more scientific manner, the results of which will be featured in a forthcoming paper entitled “A Status-Enhancement Account of Overconfidence” to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Anderson and three co-authors, including UC Berkeley Associate Professor Don Moore, conducted six studies exploring why individuals would be motivated to be overconfident, looking specifically at whether the desire for social status contributes to overconfidence.
To do so, researchers measured the degree to which participants falsely believed they were better than others at various tasks.
In one study, for example, researchers gave participants a test to objectively measure their knowledge of geography. The participants were then paired up and told to work on the tasks together, after which they were asked to rate one another’s competence. Researchers then measured who rose in status as they collaborated with others, according to Anderson.
The authors consistently found that individuals who had exhibited overconfidence in a subject area — say, for example, that they claimed to be better at geography than they actually were — were seen as more competent by others even when they were not.
The authors followed up these findings by examining the unique characteristics of overconfident people to determine what made them appear so competent.
“We found that they were not obnoxious,” said Anderson. “They didn’t boast or brag, or talk about how great they were. They simply participated more, provided more of their opinions, exhibited a greater comfort and ease with the task.”
That means that, as Moore explained, the fact that someone was not as competent as they appeared never came out.
“(We were) looking at the early phases of status evolution,” Moore said. “Checking up on accuracy is harder. People can get away with expressing more confidence than they ought to have.”
In total, the authors found that not only did overconfident individuals attain higher status because of how they presented themselves to others, but also that the desire for higher status was a key motivation behind this overconfidence.
While there are clear benefits to maintaining a sense of overconfidence — namely that people will be more likely to listen to you — there are also some obvious drawbacks, according to Moore.
“Once it comes out that you don’t know what you’re talking about — you can get into enormous trouble,” said Moore. “Think of generals who were too sure they’d win a battle (or) CEOs who were too sure their product would (succeed). Lots of debacles have been caused by overconfidence.”
Sara Grossman is the lead research and ideas reporter.
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