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 weight.” …