Who emerges as a leader? Why do some people have greater influence over others, such as between friends or co-workers of equal standing?
According to what we call status-enhancement theory, people gain influence by acting dominant and confident. Doing so gives others the impression that you’re a competent person. One study tested the effect of dominance on perceived competence—and how a person’s true level of competence factors into how others see them.
This study assigned participants to teams of four who had never met each other before, and had them work together to solve a series of mathematical reasoning problems. The task required everyone to discuss the problems before deciding on final answers, with the incentive that the team answering the most problems correctly would receive a cash prize.
The researchers measured each person’s dominance level through a questionnaire and their behavior during the session. Before the session began, everybody rated how dominant their own personality was, in general, in terms of how assertive and forceful they perceived themselves to be. The problem-solving session followed. Afterward, a group of observers watched a recording of the session and counted the number of dominant/confident behaviors each person displayed, such as being the first to propose an answer.
When the problem-solving session was over, team members also judged each other’s mathematical abilities, and a new set of observers made the same judgments based on the recording of that session.
The critical finding was that peers and observers judged the more dominant members to be more mathematically competent, regardless of whether the answers they gave were correct or incorrect. In other words, confident people were no more likely than others to give correct answers, but their dominant personality and assertive behavior gave the impression to everyone that they were better at math. As a result, they exerted more influence in group discussions; the rest of the group gave their answers greater weight when deciding on the final answers.
Further studies have shown that even when researchers give a group explicit feedback that a person’s answers were wrong, this did little to reduce the perceived skill of a confident person.
So why was self-confidence more important than their accuracy when others judged them?
For some reason, we are mesmerized when people express themselves with absolute conviction. We’ll often overlook inaccuracies, omissions, and flaws in reasoning, as though their conviction temporarily distracts us from the substance of what they’re saying.
Needless to say, this way of communicating is the bread and butter of salespeople, politicians, and other presumed experts who tout products, ideas, and themselves. Supreme belief in your product is the foundation of successful sales.
Maybe extreme confidence naturally captivates us because many of the things we care about don’t have clear-cut right or wrong answers like math problems do. Instead, self-confident speakers provide us with inspiration. They give voice to our own views. They reassure about the future and entertain us with their opinions and vague predictions. Political speeches and sales pitches are most successful when they achieve all these ends.
This kind of influence is not inherently bad. As long as we’re aware of the hypnotic potential of self-confidence, it should serve as a warning for us to take an extra moment to separate what someone is saying from how they are saying it.