Why it’s hard to tell when high-class people are incompetent

A recent study gives new meaning to the saying "fake it 'til you make it."

  • The study involves four experiments that measured individuals' socioeconomic status, overconfidence and actual performance.
  • Results consistently showed that high-class people tend to overestimate their abilities.
  • However, this overconfidence was misinterpreted as genuine competence in one study, suggesting overestimating your abilities can have social advantages.

People who come from high social classes are more likely to overestimate their abilities. That's not exactly shocking. But a new study reveals something a bit less intuitive: This overconfidence is often misinterpreted by others as genuine competence, even when the high-class individual is demonstrably average.

It's a phenomenon that could be perpetuating social hierarchies, and researchers suggest it might stem from high-class individuals' desire to gain social status.

"It can provide them a path to social advantage by making them appear more competent in the eyes of others," wrote the authors of the study, published Monday in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The study involved four experiments:

Study 1 – High class, high confidence

This large field study involved about 151,000 small-business owners in Mexico who were applying for a loan. In what appeared to them to be part of the loan process, each applicant was asked to rate how well they think they performed compared to others on a memory game, designed to predict whether applicants will default on a loan. Results showed that higher-class people outperformed other groups, but not by as much as they thought they did.

Study 2 – Overconfidence and the desire to gain social rank

This experiment had several aims, but its main goal was to test whether the overconfidence of higher-class people is linked to a desire to rise in social rank. After submitting demographic and socioeconomic information, online participants took a test they were told would measure their mental abilities. Higher-class people were, again, more overconfident than others. But more importantly, according to the researchers, it showed that, "participants with relatively high social class had a stronger desire for social rank, which, in turn, was associated with more overconfidence."

Study 3 – Overconfident (and average) in trivia games

In this trivia-game experiment, higher-class people again overestimated their abilities compared to the rest of the participants. Study 3 also replicated the prior findings showing that high-class people have a stronger desire to climb the social ladder, a trait that's associated with more overconfidence.

Study 4 – Overconfidence pays out

This mock-interview experiment was designed to see whether overconfidence led to social advantages. The student participants were each videotaped as they answered one interview question. Then, a group of strangers evaluated each candidate. In general, high-class participants who were overconfident in their abilities were rated more favorably than their peers by independent judges. The implication: Overconfidence seems to pay out in the social world.

'Fake it 'til you make it'

So, do these results suggest you should "fake it 'til you make it"? Not quite. The researchers wrote that "overconfidence is believed to be a significant underlying cause for many organizational and societal catastrophes, such as wars, strikes, litigation, entrepreneurial failures, and stock market bubbles."

What's more, different cultures and social classes may have varying attitudes toward overconfidence, as lead study author Peter Belmi told The New York Times:

"I grew up in the Philippines with the idea that if you have nothing to say, just shut up and listen."

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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.