Guest Post: The Wages Of Overconfidence Is Success

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Justin via The Pessimist blog,

Many of us have worked with or for individuals who have confidence in wild disproportion to their actual talent.  They bubble endlessly with exaggerated claims of their skills and achievements, and congratulate themselves publicly for even the most trivial of accomplishments. It’s as if by broadcasting the certainty of their own superiority, they can somehow possibly mask their own often lackluster record of performance and dearth of talent.

Yet of course, it works quite well! The specter of watching mediocre self-promoters brashly stomping their unremarkable way to the top of some pecking order, org chart, or political office is overfamiliar to most all of us.  So too is the havoc these overconfident alphadolts wreak once they become our leaders, managers, celebrities and heroes. In fact, the problem of is now so brazenly obvious that even psychologists have finally begun to pick up on it.

And now, one researcher is attempting to explain why this is happening… [Um, maybe because his forebears promoted the Self-Esteem movement as a superior alternative to the Protestant Work Ethic? Just sayin'... -- Ed.]

As reported in Forbes not too long ago, Professor Cameron Anderson of the University of California published the results of his own studies into this matter in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology under the title “A Status-Enhancement Account of Overconfidence.”

As noted, Professor Cameron’s conclusion that “confidence often trumps competence” is not a new one — but where former studies have focused on why overconfidence is prevalent, Cameron is more interested in why overconfidence often leads to success. And his answer is as simple as it is mortifying.

“Talent and intelligence are hidden qualities, and unless you observe someone at work all the time, it’s difficult to know how hard he or she works,” Cameron explains,This means that individuals who are able to convey the image of talent and industriousness will have an advantage over others.”

Discernment of genuine talent in others requires insightful observers who do not confuse style for substance and sizzle for flavor.  Many people lack the twin traits of sensitivity and skepticism needed to perceive true substance in others and find it much easier just to assume that confidence is an indicator of actual talent. Naturally, they then conclude the most confident people surely must also be the most talented.

Ironically, this inevitably disadvantages perfectionists in our society, who are often exceptionally talented.  They strive for flawlessness in their efforts and are harsh critics of self when they fall even a tiny bit short of perfection.

The confusion of confidence for talent also confers competitive advantages to people raised in the Church of High Self-Esteem by coddling parents, overpraising teachers, and cartoons on Nick, Jr. that effusively congratulated them for being able to clap their own hands, even if they’d also turned their dirty diapers into an authentic Dora’s Pirate Adventure Hat during the singalong. Or done something even more inexplicably stupid, and just kept right on trucking.

Cameron’s study generated a lot of chatter in a news circles, in academia, and elsewhere — yet one can’t help but assume that few who are discussing his conclusions about the prevalence of unearned overconfidence actually wonder whether it might apply to them.

After all, as Cameron himself notes, “94 percent of college professors were found to believe their (own) work was above average.” How much worse is this objectivity gap going to get when the most narcissistic generation yet conceived graduates from their classrooms and go out into the world to reshape it even further in their own vainglorious image?

Pretty soon we’ll start seeing the destructive effects of all this self-delusion and narcissism on online society itself — as the deluded, vainglorious youth schooled by deluded, vainglorious professors begin exerting outsized influence over the future of the Internet itself, thanks in no small part to the already-stated overconfidence advantages they enjoy over their more competent, more self-critical peers.

Surely, it won’t be too long before we see them begin even to reshape this wonderful gift of the Internet into a vehicle almost entirely devoted to their self-promotion and self-exaltation.  To the erecting and proliferation of duck-faced idols of themselves as they seek the worship and adulation of their duck-faced idol peers. Putting aside the thankless work of quiet toil in unsung labors of self-improvement so that they can perpetually broadcast to the world their most trivial and mundane of achievements.  

As if the fact that they somehow managed to assemble their very own sandwich of meat, bread, and cheese constitutes a personal triumph worthy of multi-photo documentation, complete with shift-tilt lens effects

As if the fact that they somehow managed to apply an eighth-layer of eyeliner when all their skeptical, duck-faced, seven-layer-of-eyeliner-sporting friends repeatedly warned them ‘It Can’t Be Done Girl So Don’t Even Try!‘ was so legendary an achievement that it might one day be poured over by future self-deluded Professors of Eyelinerology in amazement, as they exclaim “Thank the gods she left documentation of this, lest none might have believed it possible!”

Oh wait. We’re way past that already. Forget I said anything.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
F. Bastiat's picture

Historicism, as many have called it.  The odd notion that certain hominids are somehow magically pre-destined for something or other.  Communism, being chosen by God, or the like.


A very, very primitive set of superstitions.

Silenus's picture

Historicism is the idea that truth depends on context and therefore changes. In other words, there is no absolute truth and the world is a constant flux. 

I Write Code's picture

Can I play too?

Historicism is the idea that what we have today is a product of history, as opposed to any kind if reductionist description of properties.

I don't much like the Wikipedia entries on "historicism" or "new historicism", but there's nothing much wrong with the dictionary definition:

... except that it doesn't reflect all the history of the current connotations ...

F. Bastiat's picture

The wikipedia article is nonsense.

Popper explains it best, IMO, in the Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume 1.

I Write Code's picture

Popper criticizes the scientistic historicism of the communists and the idea that anything like "historical necessity" provides a generally progressivist moral excuse to steamroll the opposition.

There's another thread in historicism in analytic philosophy, Donald Davidson's parable of "swampman" also elaborated by Ruth Garrett Millikan.  It's real garbage, IMHO, but at least it provides a very clear definition of what "historicism" can mean.  I'm sure the ambitious can google up a ton on Davidson, RGM, and swampman.

Silenus's picture

Davidson is an idiot. Most philosophers of the last half century are nothing to write home about.

Vampyroteuthis infernalis's picture

The author overlooks the obvious. Overconfidence is good for the privileged who fall back on money or connections to digs themselves out of holes after screwing up big time. For the unwashed masses, they suffer after loosing everything by blowing it or suffer to these idiots.

F. Bastiat's picture

From Popper's perspective, at least as articulated in "The Open Society", it is the rather primitive notion that something is somehow magically pre-determined by history.

The obvious two examples of such primitive superstitions are Karl Marx's notion that somehow "communism" is pre-ordained to be the destiny of mankind and the (related, pre-Marx) notion, offered by some primitive tribes, that they are somehow magically pre-ordained to be God's chosen tribe.

Such superstitions are so primitive that folks today have a hard time even processing them.


GernB's picture

So we can throw out all science because everything it teaches only applies in certain contexts. I suppose it's true that in a fantasy world like some people live in that things like gravity don't exist.

All Risk No Reward's picture

Actually, that's exactly right.  The bankster establishment wants you to think everything is wishy washy while they use the rules of the university to F* You Up.

If you fall for it, you are an evolutionary chump and, therefore, don't deserve to exist as you aren't "fit."

See how that works?

Bollixed's picture

The Age of the Pretenders is in full swing. All show, no go. No wonder Obo is so well loved...

francis_sawyer's picture

"Oh wait. We’re way past that already. Forget I said anything..." <thread tag>


OK... Umm.. Thanks... I'll try to do that...



Justin JEWELL... I mean, 'Sewell'... ZERO agenda there...

lasvegaspersona's picture


"Actions speak louder than words"

is kaput?

F. Bastiat's picture

In a society impelled by mass-TV-media, it certainly is.

optionsman's picture


As many of the readers here, I have worked with so many undeserved overconfident bafoons that I thought i must have been missing something that there must have been a reason why they were paid so much more for doing so much less than me- I was brainwashed by an honest well meaning people who repeated a million time to do my job better and faster than anyone else and money would come eventually. The same well meaning people brainwashed me to always give the benefit of the doubt. The result is 15 wasted years. When I have attained all the coveted degrees and designations and then got to work very closely with the highest paid of the most undesereved overconfidemt bafoons- my world got crushed. But my story is far from unique and thats where the tragedy is.

Superb article! But for the love of god- why is historicism related to the subject matter?

Skateboarder's picture

I'm an engineer. You can't fake results. You can't fake simplicity. You can't fake knowledge.

p.s. don't shoot for the stars, shoot for another universe, dummy.

rtalcott's picture

Can't fake results?  Sure you can...I see it ALL the time..and..if you are not gubbermint or MIC reality may catch up with you assuming you are not gone by then...

Skateboarder's picture

My bad, I agree with you here. 'Results' was a totally inappropriate word for my intent. I meant to say quality. Can't fake quality.

Google is not quality shit. Facebook is not quality shit. Microsoft is not quality shit. Even Apple is not quality shit. The free, openly chugging along, and now compromised in some branches, Linux, is of far superior quality than any of these commercial products. Why? Because people need their shit to work fast, guaranteed, secure, and with 100% full access to all information.

That's not even scratching the surface of the omnipresent mediocrity.

rtalcott's picture

A BIG X IV on that.  People and organizations don't give a shit.  I started my career @ 3M in 1977 (have not been there for years)...things were run well then/ general things ain't the same now....rank and file does not care because management does not care...this crap is 100% top get the behavior you reward NOT the behavior you ask for...I cannot believe the crap I's not even subtle but it goes on....a big crash a coming.

Skateboarder's picture

My personal observation is that pooling too many individuals into an organization fosters mediocrity. The too many cutoff line is somewhere around 12-15 +/- 5.

Don't need giant corporations and conglomerates to acheive great things. Lots of little groups are the best way to foster accountability, quality, trust in one's own and each others' abilities, etc. Also keeps the wealth distribution in check.

But we can't have nice things now, can we.

rtalcott's picture

The classic graph in "The Mythical Man Month" (may have the title wrong)...there is an optimum number of people...too few or too many slows you rule is the minimum number that can get the job done is best and the ONLY way to get the minimum number is to be VERY selective and choose the best then go do your job...and if it ain't academic R&D goals and objectives need to be's shit out there now....and I don't see it getting any better...too many people are doing well by gaming the system...big Pharma...MIC...FEDs come tomind and everything related...

MayIMommaDogFace2theBananaPatch's picture

Here's another quote from Fred Brooks' Mythical Man Month that is quite pertinent for the article:

Because of optimism, we usually expect the number of bugs to be smaller than it turns out to be. Therefore, testing is usually the most mis-scheduled part of programming.

NOTE: Brooks and MMM predate the concept of Test-Driven-Development by a quite a few years...

rtalcott's picture

A classic example HOW TO manage is the Linux Kernel...amazing what they continue to do.

rtalcott's picture

Not to beat it to death but there is HP when Bill & Dave ran it....then there is HP after....ain't the same...we are flight 214 cleared for final on 28L

MayIMommaDogFace2theBananaPatch's picture

Fuck Carly Fiorina!  She takes the blame AFAIAC...

Stuck on Zero's picture

Having coded device drivers for Linux many times I can tell you that deep down in most Linux packages is the ugliest most snarled, spaghetti code I have ever seen.  It's a wonder it ever works.  Red Hat and Ubuntu actually cleaned up a lot of the mess.  I wouldn't trust my life to Linux.  QNX yes.


Skateboarder's picture

Yes, it's a miracle that it works. I've written device code for Linux as well. It's the best we got man. Hahahah.

q99x2's picture

able to convey the image of talent and industriousness

Why's everybody always picking on me?.

wisehiney's picture

One can pontificate, articulate, gesticulate vociferate, prognosticate or even masturbate (while thinking one is making love to the whole world), but it all boils down to the same simple old sayings and things my granddaddy used to teach me. Be careful that you don't outsmart yourself.

Yen Cross's picture

  Overconfidence in it's precept, isn't a bad thing. Overconfident people achieve and fail spectacularly...

 Know it all (CNBS) a-holes are legends in their own minds, and don't do their homework.

     RealTime cash CFDs
     US 30    15,437.00    15,464.30    15,442.00    15,428.00    (-27.30)    -0.18%    12/07
     S&P 500    1,675.90    1,680.19    1,676.90    1,675.40   ( -4.29)    -0.26%    12/07
     NQ 100    3,070.20    3,079.07    3,071.90    3,068.40   ( -8.87)    -0.29%    12/07
     SmallCap 2000    1,034.65    1,036.52    1,034.95    1,033.35   ( -1.87)    -0.18%    12/07
     Germany 30    8,208.00    8,212.77    8,225.50    8,201.80    (-4.77)    -0.06%    12/0

Spastica Rex's picture

It's Mr. Rogers' fault.

I Write Code's picture

Well, yeah, and I say all over town that this really is the age of incompetents pretending to skills and knowledge they don't have at all, Obama being like the archetype of this analysis!

But what makes it work is that we're all just tribal apes looking for leadership, we expect and demand such *behaviors* from our alpha males, and I guess sometimes it works out.  And sometimes it doesn't work out, which is why lots of (even alpha, if there are such things) females fool around with the beta males, it's an evolutionary backup plan.

Famously, tall people are chosen as managers in many group and business settings, their height alone is a mark of "overconfidence".  It's amazing we get anything done at all, ain't it.

Itch's picture

Shit floats.

rtalcott's picture

Excellent summary...says everything that needs to be said.

Stuck on Zero's picture

I see resumes all the time that contain pages and pages of awards, honors, and accolades.  If you examine them very carefully you will see that not a single award or honor was for outstanding work.  All the honors are for activism, participation, membership, organizational abilities, and politicking. 


RECISION's picture

There is even a book (Bible?) about how to be an over confidant A-hole.

The 48 Laws of Power.

involuntarilybirthed's picture

When our expectations are incompetence, the peter principle no longer applies.

orangedrinkandchips's picture

it's like the Seinfeld episode where Cosmo Kramer gets a desk job.....starts to stress about the job even though it's all fake. He presents a report to his boss and his boss laughs at the stupidity of the report.


I hate all these idiots and their 15  min of fame....but they are getting paid (who the fuck would pay to have a duck at your party?).



HowardBeale's picture

Surely, it won’t be too long before we see them begin even to reshape this wonderful gift of the Internet into a vehicle almost entirely devoted to their self-promotion and self-exaltation.  To the erecting and proliferation of duck-faced idols of themselves as they seek the worship and adulation of their duck-faced idol peers.

And then, at peak delusion, they'll create some site for narcissists called "ME." Or maybe they won't be so blatant, and they'll come up with some wanker's description such as "MePage," "MeBook," or "Facebook"; something that hides the craven vanity and relentless neediness just enough...

paint it red call it hell's picture

AND ALWAYS promoted beyond their highest level of incompetency to positions where competency is subject to how well their meeting is run.

Seen it time and time again.

Acet's picture

I've seen it again and again in big corps.

I suspect most big corporates only survive because they bought the politicians (and hence they can suckle from the tit of the state AND the laws were done so as to protect them from competition) and because they rode the one-in-a-lifetine waves of globalisation and financialization.

The amount of incompetence I've seen while working as a freelancer within several big corporations is one of the reasons why I think we're living the times of The Fall of the West.


T-NUTZ's picture

sometimes a cigar is just a cigar

KickIce's picture

Or even if you wrap a POS in an expensive suit, it's still a POS.

RunningMan's picture

It seems to be a flaw at the intersection of capitalism and human behavior, such that I have witnessed first-hand teams, lines of business, and whole firms overcrowded by overconfident self-promoters. Eventually the system will need to rebalance, but I'm not holding my breath.

KickIce's picture

C3-PO  Delusions of Grandeur