Overconfidence and self-delusion can lead to higher social status, research finds.
This might help explain why many leaders seem so overconfident.
Of course there are disadvantages to overconfidence as well, but these may be outweighed by the advantages.
Dr Cameron Anderson, the study’s first author, said:
“Our studies found that overconfidence helped people attain social status.
People who believed they were better than others, even when they weren’t, were given a higher place in the social ladder.
And the motive to attain higher social status thus spurred overconfidence.”
The findings can also explain why at work the incompetent are so often promoted over their more competent peers.
Dr Anderson said:
“In organizations, people are very easily swayed by others’ confidence even when that confidence is unjustified.
Displays of confidence are given an inordinate amount of weight.”
Across a series of six experiments the researchers tested several aspects of their theory.
They found that overconfident individuals did indeed manage to gain the highest social status just by being overconfident.
However, their overconfidence wasn’t perceived as such by others in the group, Dr Anderson said:
“This overconfidence did not come across as narcissistic.
The most overconfident people were considered the most beloved.”
Another experiment revealed that overconfident individuals tended to:
- Speak more often.
- Use a confident tone.
- Give more information and answers.
- Act relaxed and calm.
Dr Anderson said:
“These big participators were not obnoxious, they didn’t say, ‘I’m really good at this.’
Instead, their behavior was much more subtle.
They simply participated more and exhibited more comfort with the task — even though they were no more competent than anyone else.”
The final two studies revealed that desiring status actually caused people to be more overconfident.
The study’s authors conclude:
“One of the most basic questions for students of human social groups, organizations, and societies, is the question of how we select individuals for positions of status.
Although we may seek to choose wisely, we are often forced to rely on proxies for ability, such as individuals’ confidence.
In so doing, we, as a society, create incentives for those who would seek status to display more confidence than their actual ability merits.”
In other words: are we just selecting the over-confident to rule us and ignoring those who could actually do a much better job?
The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Anderson et al., 2012).
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
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