Guest Post: The Wages Of Overconfidence Is Success

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.