Confidence. It’s a good thing, right?
Overconfidence can spell trouble. So says a Healthland article a few months back, dipping into issues of a big head – and then some.
In “How Overconfidence and Paranoia Become Self-Fulfilling Prophecies,” Maia Szalavitz explains how overconfidence – an excessive amount of self-assurance (bordering on arrogance?) can lead some to assume competence where it may in fact be lacking.
Ms. Szalavitz also takes on the issue of paranoia in this article – and the influence of negative thinking in encouraging situations we would like to avoid.
In other words – what we project may very well transform into what we become – at least in the eyes of others.
But I’m not sure I buy it. At least, I only buy it up to a point.
When “Fake It ‘Til You Make It” Works
According to the article:
… psychologists are now actually beginning to understand how “faking it ’til you make it” — or alternatively, psyching yourself out with negative thinking — works in the social world. Two fascinating recent studies — one on confidence; the other exploring social fears — reveal how our own positive and negative stances work to alter our relationships and careers.
The study of most interest to me is the one that addresses overconfidence, concluding that it suggests competence. And we fall for it!
I will point out – the conclusions are drawn from experiments with a small pool of undergraduate students. To me, that means there was no sustained test of the theoretical competence of the overconfident individual. In other words, had the students been in a position to rely on the abilities of the overconfident person for a year – would they still have the same perception?
At some point, don’t you have to deliver?
The Power of Negative Thinking
As for the power of positive thinking or negative thinking, in general, I’m a fan of balanced thinking, which doesn’t mean I don’t recognize that you catch more flies with honey.
And confidence is crucial. When you feel good about yourself you will project an ease that makes others comfortable with you, your ideas, your everything.
We have examples of positive thinking working wonders – we spin those stories often – yet positive thinking should not drip into the Land of Magical Thinking. It cannot reshape reality or suddenly impose abilities where they do not exist.
It can, however, give off enough good “vibes” to make you pleasant to be around, to encourage assistance, and to engender good feelings in others which will influence their perceptions.
Illusions – In the Absence of Ability
The article mentions illusions of being skilled when we are not – the proverbial big head with little to back it up – and the way confidence can create the appearance of competence to others.
And I’m afraid my mind goes straight to the slug-fest we’re currently witnessing in the political arena. After all, don’t we talk about the importance of “seeming presidential?”
Are we looking at substance and ability? Are digging deeper into the facts or consuming our factoids? Are we paying attention to the spin rooms and reality checkers, and recognizing the bias of each side’s position as it regurgitates and interprets what they want us to see and hear?
To what extent are we psychologically responding to overconfidence, and taking it as a sign of leadership?
Win-Win or Win-Lose
Wielding overconfidence in short spurts – using it to move up the ladder – is something most of us have seen, if not lived. But I do want to make a distinction between the right amount of confidence versus that excess of (implied, unfounded) self-assurance which the Healthland article describes.
Either way, eventually we deliver, or hit some version of the Peter Principle – our personal glass ceiling of incompetence.
As for perceptions of overconfidence, the article makes no reference to gender or other demographics, but concludes that overconfident people are perceived as likable. They are not viewed as arrogant, which is characterized by an “offensive display of superiority or self-importance.”
Then again, the impressions and responses from an 18- to 22-year old perspective – remember, the study used an undergraduate population – are very different from those of an adult with a few years (or decades) out in the world.
As for confidence, overconfidence, even arrogance – none of that precludes ability, though overconfidence suggests that perception is not in line with reality. So shouldn’t we be cautiously looking under the hood, to find the reality?
How We Choose Leaders
Overconfidence? Big head?
I admit that any behavior that bleeds into arrogance – whatever the context – makes me see red.
If we’re talking about someone in a position of authority, it could be a very different story.
The Healthland article concludes that both positive and negative attitudes about oneself and the environment do influence outcomes, at least to some extent.
The study on overconfidence yields the following:
The authors conclude that although selecting leaders is one of the most important tasks for societies and groups, “we are often forced to rely on proxies for ability such as individuals’ confidence. In so doing, we as a society create incentives for those who would seek status to display more confidence than their actual ability merits.” That, of course, leaves us vulnerable to picking those who can best exhibit confidence, not competence.
If we buy the gist of this research, perhaps it’s a useful reminder. Perceptions are powerful; they may overrule more thoughtful assessment when we are better served by analysis of circumstances, character and values, consistency of behavior, and decisions made to date.
“Fake it ’til you make it” is ideal in some situations. In others? It’s just not good enough.