Social status and incompetence: Why are people overconfident so often?
Aug 13, 2012 | University of California - Berkeley Haas School of Business
It's all about social status, a UC Berkeley study finds.
Researchers have long known that people are very frequently
overconfident - that they tend to believe they are more physically
talented, socially adept, and skilled at their job than they actually
are. For example, 94% of college professors think they do above average
work (which is nearly impossible, statistically speaking). But this
overconfidence can also have detrimental effects on their performance
and decision-making. So why, in light of these negative consequences, is
overconfidence still so pervasive?
The lure of social status promotes overconfidence, explains Haas School
Associate Professor Cameron Anderson. He co-authored a new study, "A
Status-Enhancement Account of Overconfidence," with Sebastien Brion,
assistant professor of managing people in organizations, IESE Business
School, University of Navarra, Haas School colleagues Don Moore,
associate professor of management, and Jessica A. Kennedy, now a
post-doctoral fellow at the Wharton School of Business. The study will
be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).
"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," says Anderson, the Lorraine Tyson Mitchell Chair in Leadership and Communication II at the Haas School.
Social status is the respect, prominence, and influence individuals
enjoy in the eyes of others. Within work groups, for example, higher
status individuals tend to be more admired, listened to, and have more
sway over the group's discussions and decisions. These "alphas" of the
group have more clout and prestige than other members. Anderson says
these research findings are important because they help shed light on a
longstanding puzzle: why overconfidence is so common, in spite of its
risks. His findings suggest that falsely believing one is better than
others has profound social benefits for the individual.
Moreover, these findings suggest one reason why in organizational
settings, incompetent people are so often promoted over their more
competent peers. "In organizations, people are very easily swayed by
others' confidence even when that confidence is unjustified," says
Anderson. "Displays of confidence are given an inordinate amount of
The studies suggest that organizations would benefit
from taking individuals' confidence with a grain of salt. Yes,
confidence can be a sign of a person's actual abilities, but it is often
not a very good sign. Many individuals are confident in their abilities
even though they lack true skills or competence.
The authors conducted six experiments to measure why people become
overconfident and how overconfidence equates to a rise in social
stature. For example:
In Study 2, the researchers examined 242 MBA students in their project
teams and asked them to look over a list of historical names, historical
events, and books and poems, and then to identify which ones they knew
or recognized. Terms included Maximilien Robespierre, Lusitania, Wounded
Knee, Pygmalion, and Doctor Faustus. Unbeknownst to the participants,
some of the names were made up. These so-called "foils" included Bonnie
Prince Lorenzo, Queen Shaddock, Galileo Lovano, Murphy's Last Ride, and
Windemere Wild. The researchers deemed those who picked the most foils
the most overly confident because they believed they were more
knowledgeable than they actually were. In a survey at the end of the
semester, those same overly confident individuals (who said they had
recognized the most foils) achieved the highest social status within
It is important to note that group members did not think of their high
status peers as overconfident, but simply that they were terrific. "This
overconfidence did not come across as narcissistic," explains Anderson.
"The most overconfident people were considered the most beloved."
Study 4 sought to discover the types of behaviors that make
overconfident people appear to be so wonderful (even when they were
not). Behaviors such as body language, vocal tone, rates of
participation were captured on video as groups worked together in a
laboratory setting. These videos revealed that overconfident individuals
spoke more often, spoke with a confident vocal tone, provided more
information and answers, and acted calmly and relaxed as they worked
with their peers. In fact, overconfident individuals were more
convincing in their displays of ability than individuals who were
actually highly competent.
"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," says
Two final studies found that it is the "desire" for status that
encourages people to be more overconfident. For example, in Study 6,
participants read one of two stories and were asked to imagine
themselves as the protagonist in the story. The first story was a
simple, bland narrative of losing then finding one's keys. The second
story asked the reader to imagine him/herself getting a new job with a
prestigious company. The job had many opportunities to obtain higher
status, including a promotion, a bonus, and a fast track to the top.
Those participants who read the new job scenario rated their desire for
status much higher than those who read the story of the lost keys.
After they were finished reading, participants were asked to rate
themselves on a number of competencies such as critical thinking skills,
intelligence, and the ability to work in teams. Those who had read the
new job story (which stimulated their desire for status) rated their
skills and talent much higher than did the first group. Their desire for
status amplified their overconfidence.
De-emphasizing the natural tendency toward overconfidence may prove
difficult but Prof. Anderson hopes this research will give people the
incentive to look for more objective indices of ability and merit in
others, instead of overvaluing unsubstantiated confidence.
See the present version of the full paper here.