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Overconfidence Increases Social Status

2012 July 24

One of the more entertaining foibles of human psychology is the “Lake Wobegon Effect” — the tendency for most people to think they’re above average. While it’s easy to imagine how such a flaw can lead to increased disappointment and tragically hilarious failures, the murkier nature of its benefits begs the question of why it has survived as a seemingly adaptive cognitive process.

One explanation is that overconfidence has the psychological benefits of improving a person’s self-esteem, mental health, and persistence. Yet the higher number of failures that results from overconfidence would seem to mitigate some of these benefits. A more complete explanation would spell out how overconfidence leads to better outcomes without the potential for drawbacks.

A new study led by Berkeley psychologist Cameron Anderson appears to provide such an explanation. In a series of experiments Anderson and his team examined the social benefits of overconfidence. They found that overconfidence often leads to an increase in social status by making people appear more competent.

We tested this status-enhancing account of overconfidence in 6 studies. Studies 1–3 found that overconfidence leads to higher social status in both short- and longer-term groups, using naturalistic and experimental designs. Study 4 applied a Brunswikian lens analysis (Brunswik, 1956) and found that overconfidence leads to a behavioral signature that makes the individual appear competent to others. Studies 5 and 6 measured and experimentally manipulated the desire for status and found that the status motive promotes overconfi- dence. Together, these studies suggest that people might so often believe they are better than others because it helps them achieve higher social status.

On a general level, the study demonstrates the degree to which we unconsciously take our cues from other people. When somebody acts like they’re awesome, we tend to increase our rating of their awesomeness. Trying to figure everything out for ourselves is just too hard.

From a practical standpoint, the study lends support to those who recommend that in job interviews or similar situations the best strategy is to aggressively sell yourself up to the point of outright dishonesty. Even when people are attempting to evaluate you as critically and objectively as possible, it would seem that your confidence can still have a positive effect at the margin. That is, unless your confidence relates to running for president and not having to release your tax returns.
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Anderson, C., Brion, S., Moore, D.A., & Kennedy, J.A. (2012). A Status-Enhancement Account of Overconfidence Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0029395

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