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Why It Pays To Be Overconfident

An item on a widely used narcissism scale asks people if they agree with the statement that the world would be a better place if they were in charge. The answer is supposed to be no.

The eye is an exquisite sensory device -- honed over hundreds of millions of years of evolution -- and yet people are incredibly biased in their perception.

If you don't believe you're biased, think for a moment about the last time you saw a candid photo of yourself that you liked. If you're similar to most people, you probably think that 80 percent of the shots of yourself are poorly taken. But your friends are not bad photographers; you're just not as good looking as you think you are. And that's why you don't like their pictures of you, because they capture what you really look like.

The best example of this effect can be seen in a wonderful pair of experiments by Nick Epley (at the University of Chicago) and Erin Whitchurch (at the University of Virginia). They took photographs of their participants, morphed them to varying degrees with attractive or unattractive faces, and then asked people to identify their actual photo among an array of the morphed photos.

Epley and Whitchurch found that the average person chose a photo that had been morphed to the tune of 20 percent with the more attractive face. And when they had to identify their own face as rapidly as possible in an array of other faces, people found their photo more quickly if it had been morphed to be more attractive than if it was their actual face. These experiments suggest that our self-image in our mind's eye is more attractive than our actual self.

So why does our stunningly acute visual system lead us astray in this fashion?

Our research suggests that we self-enhance in this manner not to make ourselves feel better (although that is a happy side effect), but rather to be more effective in our dealings with others. It's true that if I believe that I'm "Bill+20%", I will face potential costs: I'll engage in competitions I'm likely to lose and I'll try to attract romantic partners who have no interest.

But there are also benefits to believing that I'm Bill+20%, if I can get others to believe that as well. If I can convince the world that I'm Bill+20% then others will defer to me who, if they only knew it, could squash me like a bug. And I will attract romantic partners who could do better, but are tricked into thinking that better is me.

This is the evolutionary advantage of overconfidence, and it explains why overconfidence is pervasive despite its potential costs.

The problem is that my overconfidence can also be costly for you, if you are fooled by me and choose me for an important position in your group. This might seem unlikely, as top business and political leaders are selected after an extensive vetting process that ought to rule out the overconfident. The problem is that our intuitions about who is overconfident and who is appropriately confident have more to do with the social skills than the competence of the people we're selecting.

In an illustrative experiment, Cam Anderson (at the University of California, Berkeley) and his colleagues found that people were more impressed by overconfidence than they were by competence. And these effects don't just emerge in the laboratory. Richard Ronay (at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam) and his colleagues found that managers rejected aspiring leaders whom they perceived as overconfident, but their perceptions of overconfidence were unrelated to actual overconfidence. Truly overconfident people impressed these managers, and were more likely to be selected for leadership roles.

Why is overconfidence so effective in the modern world?

There are probably two answers to this question. First, we now live in a world of acquaintances and strangers. This situation is evolutionarily novel, as our ancestral social networks were made up of a few hundred individuals whom we had known our entire lives. In such small-scale societies, the effects of overconfidence are tempered by extensive knowledge of people's capabilities.

Second, the world in which we now live is so complex that well-calibrated people might feel they aren't capable of serving as effective leaders. Rather, it might be only the excessively overconfident who think they have what it takes to lead countries or major corporations.

Indeed, an item on a widely used narcissism scale asks people if they agree with the statement that the world would be a better place if they were in charge. The answer is supposed to be no.


This post first appeared on November 20, 2015.

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