When Should You Trust Confident People?
Research shows that confidence is a sign of knowledge—in some situations.
Posted Jun 17, 2019
When I first moved to the U.K., one of the things that struck me most was its quirky pub culture. My English textbook at school had translated “pub” as a type of bar, but that term didn’t seem to capture all its eccentricities. Like old teapots hanging off the walls as decoration, or weirdly mismatched chairs and stools, or the intriguing corridors leading from one homely room to another. (There's no question of where J. K. Rowling got the idea for Diagon Alley!)
However, my personal favorite are traditional pub quizzes. In the comfortable surroundings of dimly-lit rooms, scented with the salty-and-sour perfume of chips and ale, customers form groups and answer trivia questions on quiz sheets at their tables. Once the quiz master has read the final question, the sheets are swapped, and the teams correct each other’s responses. The team with the most correct answers wins, but sometimes alternative prizes are awarded for the best painting during “drawing round” or the most creative team name (my all-time favorites include “Beyonce Know-it-alls,” “Living in a Con-Dem Nation,” and “Pirates Cos We Arrr”).
Anybody who has ever participated in a pub quiz will know about the difficulties involved in balancing the characters of different team members, like the drunk mate constantly blurting out inappropriate answers and trying to embellish the answer sheet with rude doodles.
Or the quiet one who mainly comes for the pie and pint meal deal and only gives non-committal shrugs. You obviously know not to pay much attention to them.
But what about your other teammates? How do you settle on one answer if people make different suggestions? Do you vote? Do you go with the person you like best? Or do you trust the person who appears most confident?
Self-confidence (i.e. the belief in your own abilities or knowledge) is often treated as a powerful cue for accuracy. The so-called “confidence heuristic” assumes that people are confident when they think they are right, and that this confidence can help others to identify what is true. Consequently, high levels of confidence should make a person persuasive in an argument.
But just how useful is confidence for finding the right answer? And what communication cues we can rely on to identify a truly confident person?
Testing Confidence in the Lab
My colleagues and I from the Judgment and Decision Making Lab at the University of Leicester recently tested the confidence heuristic using laboratory experiments. For this, we invented a crime witness task, in which pairs of participants had to jointly identify a perpetrator from a police photo lineup. One participant per pair had a facial composite closely resembling a photo of one of nine suspects, while the other participant had a composite that did not resemble any of the suspects closely. Participants couldn’t see the other’s composite, but knew it would be different from their own. The task consisted of conferring about the information from the facial composites and subsequently selecting the same, (ideally) correct suspect from the lineup.
Our results showed that participants with good facial composites were much more confident of their judgements, and that this confidence helped them to persuade their partners to agree with them. In most pairs, this led both participants to select the correct suspect. These findings provide evidence for the validity of the confidence heuristic, because they show that confidence does signal accuracy and does encourage people to believe what is said.
So, knowledgeable people tend to be confident and therefore persuasive, but how do they communicate their confidence? Previous research has shown that we use verbal statements such as “I’m not sure,” or “I’m absolutely certain.” Indeed, similar expressions were used in our experiments. But we also found a much simpler and more direct cue, which was remarkably powerful in indicating confidence: The participant with the stronger evidence was very often the first to speak and especially the first to suggest an answer.
Our research suggests that the confidence heuristic works. However, this does not imply that we should always believe confident people who speak first. Some people are generally overconfident while others are naturally shy. In those cases, confidence has little meaning. To test how well your confidence is calibrated, check out this quick and easy knowledge test. Also, a great way to address self-doubt and promote healthier levels of confidence can be a mindful yoga practice.
In addition to individual differences in overall confidence, we also need to consider the specific decision context. Our experiments used so-called “common interest” tasks, in which the decision makers had the same, shared goal of correctly identifying a culprit. Other common interest situations may also include our pub quiz example, because people on the same team typically work towards the same outcome (i.e., getting as many correct answers as possible and winning the quiz). Hence, if your teammates disagree on an answer, you’d be well-advised to go with the most confident one—and this is likely to be the team member who gives an answer first.
Beware, however, of situations, where people’s interests are misaligned! For example, if a member from a competing quiz team gives away the answer to the latest question, you’d be foolish to blindly trust their judgment—no matter how confident it is. Hence, before believing their assertive statement that Ed Balls was the most recent winner of Strictly Come Dancing, you’d do well to consider the other person’s agenda.
If you have never attended a British pub quiz, let me finish this post by giving you the well-meant and confident advice to give it a go. Tips on good quiz locations are available online—just look out for the most confident reviews!
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