Study: Better to Be Confident Than Right

Last Updated Sep 21, 2011 12:38 PM EDT

Turns out those who blissfully go through life with an inflated sense of their own abilities actually manage to achieve more than their more realistic peers. That's the principal finding of a new study from researchers at University of Edinburgh and University of California-San Diego, who looked at the effects of overconfidence in different generations of people.

Evolutionary biologists have long known that humans tend to be overconfident, but haven't been able to figure out why this would be useful. Men tend to exhibit more false confidence than women, presumably (in evolutionary terms) because it helps them find a mate. But the new research suggests being overconfident helps in a variety of settings.

The researchers based their work on mathematical models that predicted how well overconfident, underconfident, and realistic people would do under different circumstances. They looked at the prospects of two people battling over a prize, which could be anything from oil reserves to an attractive mate. They modeled situations in which the two opponents had varying levels of confidence and differing abilities to tell how formidable the other party was.

The results, published in the journal Nature, show that overconfidence is often the best strategy. In an interview with National Geographic, study author Dominic Johnson, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh, says:
As long as there is some uncertainty about the outcome and the resource is valuable compared to the costs incurred in fighting for it, then overconfidence is the best strategy.
The exception:
If the cost of conflict or competition is high, and all for a fairly worthless prize, you're much better off being cautious.... It's unlikely to be an accident. We're perhaps overconfident for a good reason.
The study did find that some people will appear overconfident even when they're not, especially in difficult circumstances. In other words, they bluff. But in general, the study found that, as the saying holds, fortune favors the bold.

Overconfident people should also be more willing to approach members of the opposite sex, meaning they'll likely have more offspring-who will also probably be overconfident-than their more insecure peers.

Do you think overconfidence is helpful in the workplace, or is this a trait, like the ability to store massive amounts of food energy as fat, that might no longer be so helpful?

RELATED Image courtesy of flickr user marc falardeau
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.

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