Friday, February 28, 2014

Overt Confidence is the Alpha Key

Which of the following people would you be most likely to follow:
  1. An inept man who was outwardly overconfident in his abilities
  2. A competent man who was humble about his abilities
I'm sure most people picked #2. We all like to think we would make the smart choice, but according to research done by Cameron Anderson2 the choice most people make is #1. And it's not even close, the overwhelming majority of people prefered the inept overconfident guy.
“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,” said Anderson.

“ In organizations, people are very easily swayed by others’ confidence even when that confidence is unjustified,” Anderson said. “Displays of confidence are given an inordinate amount of weight.”

Researchers say these “alphas” of the group have more clout and prestige than other members. Anderson believes the new findings are important because they help shed light on a longstanding puzzle: why overconfidence is so common, in spite of its risks. 1
Why is overconfidence so common? Because it works. According to the Anderson studies there seems to be absolutely no penalty for displays of overconfidence—none, zero, nada.
  • Coworkers looked up more to overconfident coworkers
  • Women found overconfident men more desirable
  • Bosses put more trust in overconfident employees
All allocated a greater level of competence to the person who came across as confident than to others who displayed less confidence (even if the less confident person actually was more competent). And what did people think personally of their overconfident peers?
Group members did not think of their high status peers as overconfident, but simply that they were terrific.3
Displays of confidence provide social clues to others, and they don't have to be that obvious or over the top.
Individuals’ competence resides within them and is hidden from observers, making it difficult for people to accurately gauge each other’s true competence levels. People are often forced to allocate power based on what they believe each other’s competence to be. In turn, assessments of competence tend to be based on superficial cues such as a person’s nonverbal behavior, attire, or style of speaking. For example, individuals are perceived to be more competent when they appear more confident in their opinions, exhibit more comfort with a task, speak in a louder voice, and use more emphatic gestures when making their point.2
The question we should be asking is: why are displays of diffidence so common, given the social and monetary penalties men pay for acting in such a manner? There's a reason the words “confident winner” and “unconfident loser” just seem to go together. If you fail to display confidence you will be perceived as a loser; if you display confidence you will be perceived as a winner. I won't go so far as to say a person's skill set is meaningless, but it is clear that if you aren't publicly confident about your ability, nobody else will be either.

A few practical rules seem to emerge from Anderson's work:
  1. People will underestimate the ability of a person who acts in a diffident manner
  2. People will overestimate the ability of a person who acts in a confident manner
  3. When in doubt about how to act, lean towards displaying confidence, otherwise you risk people underestimating your actual abilities.




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