The Pitfalls of Overconfidence

It matters where confidence comes from—and how it’s expressed.

By Devon Frye, published October 10, 2019 - last reviewed on November 19, 2019

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None of us are immune from moments of overconfidence, in which we judge our intelligence, personality, or abilities to be more impressive than they are. While overestimating our skills or smarts can confer social benefits—including being seen as more competent—it also carries risks. Researchers recently pinpointed three situations when overconfidence can misfire—on personal, interpersonal, and societal levels.

Starting (Too) Strong

When learning a new skill, we usually feel that we’re no good—at first. But a recent study found that our feelings of inadequacy may not last long. Across six experiments (in which participants diagnosed a fictional “zombie disease” or took tests measuring real-world financial literacy), researchers identified what they called a “beginner’s bubble.”

“People started off well calibrated—they could gauge that they weren’t very good,” says lead author Carmen Sanchez, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University. But once participants had done a few rounds of diagnosis or managed their own finances for a time, they experienced a surge in confidence that dwarfed actual performance.

While the “bubble” could encourage perseverance, it has drawbacks. “Overconfidence is related to excessive risk-taking,” Sanchez says. Given the poor outcomes associated with unwise risk—particularly financial risk—the authors concluded that a little learning can sometimes be a dangerous thing.

Keep It to Yourself

High levels of confidence, even if unwarranted, can make people appear more attractive to potential collaborators. But whether such overconfidence is well received may come down to how it’s expressed, according to a recent study.

In a series of experiments, researchers found that both verbal (“I did better than everyone else!”) and nonverbal (an assertive stance and voice) signifiers of confidence did provide initial reputational boosts. But when those individuals were later revealed to have performed poorly, the ones who had expressed their cockiness out loud were judged more harshly than those who had signaled it nonverbally.

Verbal expressions of overconfidence are generally easy to identify. Nonverbal cues can be harder to pin down, explains study author Elizabeth Tenney of the University of Utah. “Anytime there’s plausible deniability, you’re more likely to give someone a pass for being overconfident.”

Confidence as Currency

Our tendency to equate confidence with competence means that overconfidence can pave the way to increased influence and status. Peter Belmi, who researches inequality at the University of Virginia, wondered if the reverse were true—that higher status engenders overconfidence—and what the societal consequences could be if it were.

In four experiments, high-status individuals (determined by self-reports and objective indices) were significantly more likely than lower-class counterparts to overconfidently predict their performance in memory, cognitive, and trivia tasks. In one experiment, the miscalibration conferred concrete advantages; in mock interviews, overconfident individuals were more likely to be deemed hireable.

“One reason inequality is reproduced,” Belmi observes, “may be that people from upper-class contexts come to have an exaggerated belief that they are better. Others then mistake that confidence for being smart—even though that’s not necessarily the case.”

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