I can see through you (or can I?)

Career coaches (actually, no, everyone) says that you need to act confident to get to what you want. Think positively. Tell yourself you’re great. Believe in yourself. Being confident signals to others that you are high ability.

But what about when Toto rips open the curtain and reveals an ordinary person behind the booming apparently all-powerful voice? Does being overconfident in your abilities pay off in the long-term? It seems pretty obvious that if it becomes clear that you’re not as good as first impressions might suggest, then people are going to revise their views of you.

Researchers Jessica Kennedy, Cameron Anderson and Don Moore from the University of California set up three studies to find out how people treat overconfident team members – both before and after their true abilities are revealed. Firstly, the unsurprising result: overconfident people are assumed to be high-ability by their peers and accorded more status and influence. Secondly, the surprising result: even when overconfident people are unmasked – when their true scores in a task are read out, they are still accorded high status and influence. Why? It isn’t entirely clear, but it may be that overconfident people are also seen as having good social skills – although it isn’t obvious why this would help in some of the tasks that teams were asked to carry out in the studies, such as estimating weights and answering general knowledge questions. 

Would this surprising result carry through into the real world? The studies were limited in terms of the number of activities team could undertake. It is possible that over a longer period of time, with more and more evidence building up on team members’ actual abilities, people would revise their views of overconfident team members. But set against this is the fact that in the real world, you rarely get unambiguous feedback on the performance of others. Which tends to suggest that there are real benefits to being overconfident, even if your abilities don’t quite match.

The full paper, “Social Reactions to Overconfidence: Do the Costs of Overconfidence Outweigh the Benefits?” is available here.

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