Why Some People Are Way Too Confident

Most people would agree that confidence is a useful quality to possess, while simultaneously conceding that overconfidence can be dangerous. And yet, those who are overconfident cross the invisible line between the two without even realizing it. How does this happen?

Veering from "self-assured" to "asshole" may seem mysterious, but new research suggests it might depend on whether or not you believe people can become smarter throughout life.

Overconfidence causes problems

First thing's first. You know that confidence is a strong belief in yourself and your potential. Confidence is good! It helps you achieve your goals and try new things. Overconfidence, however, occurs when you overestimate your abilities and potential, which leads to a strong belief that you’re capable of a task, even when (especially when) you aren’t. This has all sorts of bad results, especially if you're building an unsinkable cruise ship.  

Intelligence leads to hubris  

The research that sheds some light on the way-too-confident middle manager you're constantly battling at work found that intelligence does play a role in confidence… but it's way more complex than "dumb = overconfident." It has more to do with how a person views intelligence, rather than her actual intelligence level.

For starters, there are two basic beliefs about intelligence: entity theory and incremental theory. Incremental theory says that as people learn, they become more intelligent, which means there’s a near-limitless potential for growth if you’re not afraid to work at it.

Entity theory, however, is the idea that everyone is born with a certain amount of intelligence, and that’s it. Or, rather, everyone is born with a set potential for intelligence, because obviously people progress from infant to adult (life isn’t an endless screening of Look Who’s Talking). Sorry if you got the short straw. It’s the people from this second category, the entity-believers, who are prone to overconfidence.

So how does overconfidence happen?

It’s fair to say that if you believe you only have a set amount of intelligence, you’d like to think you got a pretty fine straw in the intelligence drawing to avoid crippling bouts of self-doubt and inadequacy. You can never get smarter otherwise!

The overconfident kids weren't so open, maybe because confronting their mistakes would feel like a slap from the inadequacy yardstick.

That’s what the analysis of three studies revealed, anyway. For the first study, college students answered questionnaires to determine who supported incremental theory and who supported entity theory. They were then split into two groups to answer GRE prep book questions, and afterwards estimate how well they did. For the easy questions, both groups estimated their performance with accuracy. Those who strongly identified with the belief that intelligence can change had fairly accurate perceptions of their performances, whereas those who thought it was fixed significantly overestimated how well they performed.

The students who more accurately estimated their scores were also more open to receiving critiques, most likely because they believed that they would learn and grow from understanding their mistakes. The overconfident kids weren't so open, maybe because confronting their mistakes would feel like a slap from the inadequacy yardstick.

It’s like the difference between shooting a missile at Godzilla and arm wrestling him.

The second study randomly assigned participants to read either an article supporting incremental theory or one supporting entity theory. Afterwards, each group was given a set of easy questions and a set of difficult questions to solve. Even when given an unlimited amount of time to finish the test and change answers as desired, those who read the entity theory spent less time on the difficult questions than their incremental counterparts. They were also more overconfident than the incrementalists, assuming they performed better, despite working faster.

However, the relative ease of the questions fed into the entity-endorsers’ overconfidence. When the tests diverted their attention toward only easy questions, overconfidence soared, but when directed toward only difficult questions, their confidence dropped to the (more accurate) level of the incremental theorists. This manipulation seemed to force the participants to really grapple with the problems. It’s like the difference between shooting a missile at Godzilla and arm wrestling him. Ultimately, in the arm wrestling portion of the test, you're forced to acknowledge your limitations.

Who's most likely to be overconfident?

The researchers say that doctors and lawyers are most prone to overconfidence, which isn't exactly groundbreaking, but still nice to know. The problem is that these people hold our lives in their hands, like a small bird!

Overconfidence that comes from avoiding tasks you aren't good at isn't real confidence at all.

Motorists of every form of transportation also exhibit overconfidence, and maybe that’s natural if you’re going to convince yourself that hurtling down a freeway in a ton of metal is perfectly safe. Unsurprisingly, bungee jumpers also tend to overestimate their safety.

How do we fight the scourge of overconfidence?

What this research suggests is that the best way to help students and employees learn is to teach the incremental theory of learning. They may not have an inflated sense of confidence, but they'll have the optimistic (and accurate) belief that they always have the ability to grow and improve.

This is important because people need to face their struggles in order to learn, and, as the study authors point out, "Entity theorists are likely to avoid difficult aspects of tasks that might require them to face up to the possibility that they are not performing well and, by extension, might not be smart."

Besides, overconfidence that comes from avoiding tasks you aren't good at isn't real confidence at all, so preaching incremental intelligence seems like the the best bet for genuine self-esteem. As study author Joyce Ehrlinger wrote in an email, "I don't think you can say anything about confidence in general. There are a million different types of confidence (e.g., optimism, willingness to take risks, confidence in your own athleticism v. confidence in how well you've performed on an intellectual task). My work only speaks to the last of those, at the moment. My guess is that people could generalize based on performance on other sorts of tasks and feel confident in other areas too, but no studies have been conducted that would show that for sure."
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Jessica Reidy is not trying to have it all. But she is writing a few books, working her Romani (“Gypsy”) family trades, and teaching university writing classes while espousing the virtues of balance in her yoga classes. Follow her at @JSReidy, which she's quite confident you won't regret doing.