When It Pays to Be Overconfident

The drive for a higher social status is what leads many to be overconfident in themselves, according to new research.

The study by researchers at the University of California Berkeley found that overconfidence helps people attain respect, prominence and influence in the eyes of others.

"People who believed they were better than others, even when they weren't, were given a higher place in the social ladder," said UC Berkeley professor Cameron Anderson. "And the motive to attain higher social status thus spurred overconfidence."

Within work groups, for example, researchers said higher-status individuals tend to be more admired, listened to, and have more sway over the group's discussions and decisions. These "alphas" of the group have more clout and prestige than other members, according to the study.

The researchers came to their conclusions after conducting six experiments to measure why people become overconfident and how overconfidence equates to a rise in social stature.

In one experiment, behaviors such as body language, vocal tone and rates of participation were captured on video as groups worked together in a laboratory setting. According to the research, the videos revealed that overconfident individuals spoke more often, spoke with a confident vocal tone, provided more information and answers and acted calm and relaxed as they worked with their peers. In addition, overconfident individuals were more convincing in their displays of ability than individuals who were actually highly competent.

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"They simply participated more and exhibited more comfort with the task — even though they were no more competent than anyone else," Anderson said.

Anderson said the findings provide the reason behind why in the workplace incompetent people are so often promoted over their more competent peers. He added that organizations would benefit from taking individuals' confidence with a grain of salt.

"In organizations, people are very easily swayed by others' confidence even when that confidence is unjustified," Anderson said. "Displays of confidence are given an inordinate amount of weight."

Co-authored by Sebastien Brion, assistant professor of managing people in organizations at the University of Navarra, UC's Don Moore, associate professor of management, and Jessica Kennedy, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Wharton School of Business, the study will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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