Overconfidence can delude us into dangerous thought or actions – and that same arrogance can also spread to others like wildfire, too.
In the late 1980s, the aptly named psychologist James Reason wanted to understand the flawed thinking behind road accidents. He took to the streets and supermarket car parks around Manchester, UK, and asked a total of 520 drivers to estimate the number of times they’d committed certain offences. joker game
Did they regularly fail to check their rear-view mirror, for instance? Or had they entered the wrong lane when approaching a junction? Beside the list of errors and violations, the participants were also asked to estimate how their driving ability compared to others’ – whether it was better or worse than average.
Given the sheer amount of time many people spend behind the wheel, you’d hope that most of the drivers would have at least some awareness of their own abilities. Yet Reason found that this couldn’t have been further from the truth. Of the 520 drivers, just five considered that they were worse than average – fewer than 1%. The rest – even the truly abysmal drivers who were constantly making errors – considered themselves to be at least as good as the next person, and many thought they were a lot better. It was, essentially, a mass delusion that rendered them completely blind to their own failings.
Three decades later, psychologists have documented similarly deluded levels of confidence for many different traits and abilities. We tend to think we are more intelligent, creative, athletic, dependable, considerate, honest and friendly than most people (a phenomenon that is often known as the “better-than-average effect”). “The evidence is extremely – even unusually – strong,” says Ethan Zell, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who recently conducted a meta-analysis of the studies so far. The strength of the effect has made it a classroom favourite, he says. “It basically never fails. If you give people a questionnaire where they rate themselves relative to the average, almost everyone in the class thinks they're above average at almost everything.”
The consequences may be serious. As Professor Reason had implied, overconfidence of our own skills on the road may lead to risky driving and serious accidents. In medicine, it can lead to fatal diagnostic error; in law, it can lead to false accusations and miscarriages of justice. And in business, managerial arrogance puts companies at a greater chance of both committing fraud and declaring bankruptcy.
It’s little wonder, then, that overconfidence is often known as the “mother of all biases”; the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Daniel Kahneman famously remarked that if he had a magic wand that could change one thing about human psychology, he would eliminate our superiority complex.
Now, fascinating new research by Joey Cheng, an assistant professor of psychology at York University, shows that overconfidence can be contagious. “If you have been exposed to an overconfident person, then you become more likely to overestimate your own relative standing,” she says. It’s a tendency that could cause dangerously deluded thinking to spread through a team.
If you have been exposed to an overconfident person, then you become more likely to overestimate your own relative standing – Joey Cheng Confidence cascades
Cheng says that she had been inspired by the anecdotal reports of behaviour on Wall Street, where arrogance appears to be rife. “When you go to other sectors like education, you often don't hear teachers being described in the same way”. These differences led her to wonder whether certain groups of people might actually encourage the development an inflated ego in others. Some previous research had hinted at this possibility, showing that bankers’ overconfidence tends to grow with their time spent in the profession – which would make sense, if they were “catching” the behaviour from their colleagues – but Cheng wanted to put the idea to the test in the laboratory.
Her first experiment had two stages. Individually, the participants were asked to look at photos of people’s faces and attempt to guess various personalities based on their expressions – a task that some people are able to do with reasonable accuracy. To gauge their confidence, the participants were asked to rate their perceptions of their abilities, compared to the rest of the group.
The participants then had to do the same task in pairs, after which they were again asked to rate their own abilities, allowing her to see whether the arrogance of one person would rub off on another. Sure enough, she found that humbler participants were much more likely to increase their own ratings once they had been placed with an overconfident partner. “It was quite remarkable,” Cheng says.