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Sunday, August 26, 2012

How Overconfidence and Paranoia Become Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

People's overconfidence can be confused with competence, while their paranoia can elicit the very anger and rejection they're seeking to avoid.

From Shakespeare to The Secret, the idea that our thoughts and perceptions shape our reality is recognized as a powerful truth. As the Bard wrote, “[T]here is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
While charlatans have long used this belief to promote bogus cancer cures and get-rich-quick schemes, 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 first study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, explored the positive effects of overconfidence, showing that it enhances social status by presenting a false image of competence. If you’ve ever wondered how the utterly clueless rise to the top, or why managers often seem to make worse decisions than dart-throwing bonobos, this research provides some insight.

n a series of six experiments, researchers led by Cameron Anderson at the University of California, Berkeley, showed that when you think you’re better than you are at certain tasks, people tend to believe you. In groups, people are easily persuaded by others’ confidence, even if it’s unjustified.
The first study involved 76 undergrads, who worked on a geography task in pairs. Before starting the task, each student was given a blank map of the U.S., labeled only with rivers and lakes, and was asked to locate 15 specific cities. Then, they were asked to rate how well they thought they did on this test; a comparison between that perception and their actual performance was used to gauge their level of overconfidence. (Their actual performance wasn’t disclosed to them.)
Afterward, the participants collaborated on the same task with a partner. Once they finished, they privately rated their partner’s performance as well as whether they thought he or she had high social status. The status rating was based on whether the partner had led decisions, otherwise influenced them or was seen as worthy of admiration or respect.
The researchers found that ratings of both high status and high competence were linked with the person’s level of overconfidence. “In fact,” the authors write, “overconfidence actually had as strong a relationship with partner-rated competence as did actual ability.” In other words, people who think they are good at something are seen as being good at it, whether or not they actually are. (Even dogs demonstrate this effect: ever watch a chihuahua intimidate a much larger dog?) Unfortunately, even in the absence of actual ability, the illusion of strength and competence that people exude makes others see them as good potential leaders.

The story continues with more from Time Magazine (click here).

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