Overconfidence May Lead You To Incompetence

August 27th, 2012

Some new research gives a new twist to the “Peter Principle” – the idea that people often rise up in their career to their level of incompetence. This study found that being overconfident can increase one’s social status, including greater power to sway others and subsequently achieve higher levels of success. However, the downside is that the overconfident person may convince themselves that they are more skilled and capable than they really are. That is, they can delude themselves and others; and be promoted beyond their actual level of competence. The research was conducted at Berkeley’s Hass School of Business, and summarized by Medical News Today in the following report:

Overconfidence helps people climb the social ladder, increasing their social status and causing them to be promoted higher than their level of competence.Falsely believing oneself to be better than others has a strong effect on other people who tend to give displays of confidence more weight than they deserve. The result is of huge social benefit to overconfident individuals, and sharpens their motive to persist with the attitude.

These are the findings of a study reported recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Further details of the research were also released this week to the press by the University of California (UC) Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, whose Associate Professor Cameron Anderson co-authored the report.

Research into overconfidence has been going on for a while: it reveals for instance that people are frequently overconfident, believing themselves to be more skilled at their jobs, more socially adept, or more talented than they really are. As an example, one survey of college professors found 94% of them believed they did above average work, which statistically, does not bear out.

In the workplace, higher social status individuals, the so-called “alphas” of the team or work group, enjoy more influence and prestige over others, they are more admired and listened to, and have a strong influence on group discussions and decisions. And they are often promoted over their more competent peers.

Anderson told the press that in organizations, “displays of confidence are given an inordinate amount of weight”, and that “people are very easily swayed by others’ confidence even when that confidence is unjustified”.

For their study, Anderson and colleagues wanted to explore what motivated people to continue being overconfident, especially given that it can often lead to poor decisions and damage performance.

They carried out a series of experiments where they measured why people became overconfident, and how this leads to increased social status.

One experiment involved 242 MBA students grouped in project teams.

Early in the semester, the researchers asked the students to examine a list containing real and made up names of people and events from history, books and poems. The students were asked to identify which items on the list they recognized. The real items included terms like Wounded Knee, Doctor Faustus, Pygmalion, and Robespierre. The made up items included terms like Queen Shaddock, Windermere Wild, Bonnie Prince Lorenzo and Galileo Lovano.

The “measure” of overconfidence was the number of made up items that students included in their list of terms they said they recognized. The more such items on their list, the more they believed they were more knowledgeable than they really were.

At the end of the semester the researchers surveyed the participants to find out which members had attained the highest social status within their groups.

After comparing the two sets of results, the researchers found the students who scored highest on overconfidence, as measured by the number of made up people and events they said they recognized, were also those who had the highest social status in their groups.

Anderson is keen to point out that group members didn’t see their high status peers as overconfident, they did not come across as narcissistic:

“The most overconfident people were considered the most beloved,” said Anderson.

In another experiment, the researchers looked at what is it that overconfident people do and say, that makes them appear so wonderful to others, even when they aren’t.

They analyzed videos of groups having discussions in lab settings and found the overconfident members were the ones who spoke the most often, used a confident tone, gave the most information, and came across as calm and relaxed. These individuals were also more convincing in displays of ability than other members who were highly competent.

Anderson said from what they observed, the overconfident members weren’t obnoxious, they didn’t boast and say “I am really good at this”. Their behavior was more subtle, and came out as more frequent participation in discussions and appearing more at ease with the task.

The researchers also carried out other experiments, for instance they did two that showed it was the “desire” for status that motivates people to be overconfident.

Anderson said it is not easy to reduce a natural tendency toward overconfidence. But he hopes at least that the study will encourage people to be more objective about what they look for when judging merit and ability in others, rather than allow themselves to be persuaded by unsubstantiated overconfidence.

An important aspect of this is in the workplace: the findings offer a reason why incompetent workers are so often promoted in preference to their more competent peers.

The researchers recommend decision-makers look at their grounds for promoting workers, and take individual confidence with “a grain of salt”.

And finally, these findings are not saying all very confident people behave more confidently than they deserve: it could be that they really are better performers.

But the researchers suggest more often than not, overconfidence is not a good sign because many individuals with this attribute tend to exaggerate their abilities: and no wonder, since the results of the study suggest they are richly rewarded for it.

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