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Overconfidence Can Give You A Competitive Edge at Work
Want to gain social status? Be certain in your judgments, whether or not you are qualified to make them. Want to rise to the top? Assess yourself to be more skilled than you actually are. And here’s the kicker: new research suggests that even when your guarantees turn out to be wrong and your bold decisions result in unmitigated disasters, you will still gain respect and influence. I spoke with Matthew Hutson, science writer and author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane,” to find out why overconfident people reap elevated social status—and if a blowhard backlash is ever coming.
In general, do people have an inflated estimation of their abilities?
It’s clear that overconfidence is prevalent. People tend to overestimate their abilities relative to others and to objective reality, and they tend to be overly certain about their beliefs. In one study, 93% of Americans said they were better than average drivers.
What is the payoff to overconfidence?
Recent research by Cameron Anderson and colleagues at Berkeley finds that overconfident people achieve higher status. Thinking highly of yourself leads you to behave in such a way that others become convinced of the lie as well. This suggests we may have evolved to be overconfident.
How does real confidence differ in presentation than the brash false confidence?
They’re very similar, and in fact overconfidence is hard to diagnose. The only way to tell appropriate confidence from overconfidence is by comparing presentation with unambiguous performance metrics, a rare occurrence. When we think we’ve spotted overconfidence, it’s often something else, perhaps an attempt to cover insecurity. Overconfident people are cool and collected, not braggarts. A recent study by Michael Dufner and colleagues found that there’s very little overlap between actual and perceived overconfidence.
How many times do we have to be burned by the false confidence of Bernie Madoff, Jordan Belfort and the like before we stop valuing this trait?
Here’s where things get interesting. It turns out that we listen to overconfident people even after it’s been revealed that they’re overconfident. A new paper by Jessica Kennedy, Don Moore, and Anderson found that even after subjects were made aware that someone's egotism was unearned, they still accorded him or her greater status. And Dufner found that people rated by others as most self-enhancing were also rated by those same people as most influential.
What factors led to the public being cued to respond positively to this ego masquerading as confidence?
Kennedy and colleagues found two effects of overconfidence that boost status. The first is perceived social skill. If you talk a lot and look people in the eye, they see you as a good leader and people person. The second is perceived competence. Looking sure of yourself gives the impression that you really know what you’re talking about. This impression actually remains after people learn your real ability level, because first impressions are hard to shake.
We’ve seen the high cost of those in top positions “getting it wrong” from the Iraq War to the 2008 financial collapse. Could there be a backlash against basic confidence or are we hard wired to always bend at the knees?
It’s possible that modern conditions amplify the price of failure. On the savannah we didn’t have aircraft carriers and highly leveraged derivatives. Every once in a while we become enraged when we put faith in a blowhard and he, well, blows it. And Sunita Sah and colleagues at Georgetown University recently reported that when perpetually incorrect advisors express a high versus medium amount of certainty they're rated as less credible. But Sah also found that the overly certain advisors don’t lose any actual influence on their advisees’ behavior. Given this and the findings by Dufner and Kennedy on the power of overconfidence even after it’s been revealed as overconfidence, I don’t think we’ll ever really tire of self-puffery.
So does self-deception and overconfidence correlate with increased status only for men?
Anderson’s research shows that overconfidence boosts status equally for men and women. This might be a surprise, given the backlash against assertive women, but Anderson points out that overconfidence doesn’t come across as pushiness or narcissism. Overconfident people just look good at what they do.
We’ll probably never know the exact reason why Jill Abramson was fired as executive editor of the New York Times. Maybe it had to do with salary demands. But, from what you’ve been saying, it likely wasn’t a matter of overconfidence. Agreed?
I’m not privy to what happened at the Times, but the publisher denies he fired Abramson over salary demands. Whether or not that’s true, he’s offered a plausible account of her weaknesses as a manger. She rubbed many people the wrong way. Now, it’s possible her pushiness would not have raised such concerns if she were a man, as research shows that women are punished more than men are for assertiveness, because it violates traditional gender roles. But it’s also possible her behavior would have caused problems no matter her gender.
What do you make of the 2013 paper by Columbia University's Ernesto Reuben that argues men’s overconfidence drives gender wage disparity?
Part of the gender inequality in certain professions may result from an inequality of confidence between men and women. One solution is to try to increase women’s confidence and dampen men’s, but another solution may be to remind people not to rely on confidence as a cue to competence. They’re weakly related, and the person who talks first and loudest might not have the best answer. Circumspection about superficial behavioral cues would immediately place men and women on a more even playing field. A confidence gap need not entail an opportunity gap.
Image credit: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
Brain cells snap strands of DNA in many more places and cell types than researchers previously thought.
The urgency to remember a dangerous experience requires the brain to make a series of potentially dangerous moves: Neurons and other brain cells snap open their DNA in numerous locations — more than previously realized, according to a new study — to provide quick access to genetic instructions for the mechanisms of memory storage.
The extent of these DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) in multiple key brain regions is surprising and concerning, says study senior author Li-Huei Tsai, Picower Professor of Neuroscience at MIT and director of The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, because while the breaks are routinely repaired, that process may become more flawed and fragile with age. Tsai's lab has shown that lingering DSBs are associated with neurodegeneration and cognitive decline and that repair mechanisms can falter.
"We wanted to understand exactly how widespread and extensive this natural activity is in the brain upon memory formation because that can give us insight into how genomic instability could undermine brain health down the road," says Tsai, who is also a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a leader of MIT's Aging Brain Initiative. "Clearly, memory formation is an urgent priority for healthy brain function, but these new results showing that several types of brain cells break their DNA in so many places to quickly express genes is still striking."
In 2015, Tsai's lab provided the first demonstration that neuronal activity caused DSBs and that they induced rapid gene expression. But those findings, mostly made in lab preparations of neurons, did not capture the full extent of the activity in the context of memory formation in a behaving animal, and did not investigate what happened in cells other than neurons.
In the new study published July 1 in PLOS ONE, lead author and former graduate student Ryan Stott and co-author and former research technician Oleg Kritsky sought to investigate the full landscape of DSB activity in learning and memory. To do so, they gave mice little electrical zaps to the feet when they entered a box, to condition a fear memory of that context. They then used several methods to assess DSBs and gene expression in the brains of the mice over the next half-hour, particularly among a variety of cell types in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, two regions essential for the formation and storage of conditioned fear memories. They also made measurements in the brains of mice that did not experience the foot shock to establish a baseline of activity for comparison.
The creation of a fear memory doubled the number of DSBs among neurons in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, affecting more than 300 genes in each region. Among 206 affected genes common to both regions, the researchers then looked at what those genes do. Many were associated with the function of the connections neurons make with each other, called synapses. This makes sense because learning arises when neurons change their connections (a phenomenon called "synaptic plasticity") and memories are formed when groups of neurons connect together into ensembles called engrams.
"Many genes essential for neuronal function and memory formation, and significantly more of them than expected based on previous observations in cultured neurons … are potentially hotspots of DSB formation," the authors wrote in the study.
In another analysis, the researchers confirmed through measurements of RNA that the increase in DSBs indeed correlated closely with increased transcription and expression of affected genes, including ones affecting synapse function, as quickly as 10-30 minutes after the foot shock exposure.
"Overall, we find transcriptional changes are more strongly associated with [DSBs] in the brain than anticipated," they wrote. "Previously we observed 20 gene-associated [DSB] loci following stimulation of cultured neurons, while in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex we see more than 100-150 gene associated [DSB] loci that are transcriptionally induced."
Snapping with stress
In the analysis of gene expression, the neuroscientists looked at not only neurons but also non-neuronal brain cells, or glia, and found that they also showed changes in expression of hundreds of genes after fear conditioning. Glia called astrocytes are known to be involved in fear learning, for instance, and they showed significant DSB and gene expression changes after fear conditioning.
Among the most important functions of genes associated with fear conditioning-related DSBs in glia was the response to hormones. The researchers therefore looked to see which hormones might be particularly involved and discovered that it was glutocortocoids, which are secreted in response to stress. Sure enough, the study data showed that in glia, many of the DSBs that occurred following fear conditioning occurred at genomic sites related to glutocortocoid receptors. Further tests revealed that directly stimulating those hormone receptors could trigger the same DSBs that fear conditioning did and that blocking the receptors could prevent transcription of key genes after fear conditioning.
Tsai says the finding that glia are so deeply involved in establishing memories from fear conditioning is an important surprise of the new study.
"The ability of glia to mount a robust transcriptional response to glutocorticoids suggest that glia may have a much larger role to play in the response to stress and its impact on the brain during learning than previously appreciated," she and her co-authors wrote.
Damage and danger?
More research will have to be done to prove that the DSBs required for forming and storing fear memories are a threat to later brain health, but the new study only adds to evidence that it may be the case, the authors say.
"Overall we have identified sites of DSBs at genes important for neuronal and glial functions, suggesting that impaired DNA repair of these recurrent DNA breaks which are generated as part of brain activity could result in genomic instability that contribute to aging and disease in the brain," they wrote.
The National Institutes of Health, The Glenn Foundation for Medical Research, and the JPB Foundation provided funding for the research.
Research shows that those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of groups, regardless of their intelligence.
- A new study proposes the "babble hypothesis" of becoming a group leader.
- Researchers show that intelligence is not the most important factor in leadership.
- Those who talk the most tend to emerge as group leaders.
If you want to become a leader, start yammering. It doesn't even necessarily matter what you say. New research shows that groups without a leader can find one if somebody starts talking a lot.
This phenomenon, described by the "babble hypothesis" of leadership, depends neither on group member intelligence nor personality. Leaders emerge based on the quantity of speaking, not quality.
Researcher Neil G. MacLaren, lead author of the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, believes his team's work may improve how groups are organized and how individuals within them are trained and evaluated.
"It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion," shared MacLaren, who is a research fellow at Binghamton University.
While we tend to think of leaders as people who share important ideas, leadership may boil down to whoever "babbles" the most. Understanding the connection between how much people speak and how they become perceived as leaders is key to growing our knowledge of group dynamics.
The power of babble
The research involved 256 college students, divided into 33 groups of four to ten people each. They were asked to collaborate on either a military computer simulation game (BCT Commander) or a business-oriented game (CleanStart). The players had ten minutes to plan how they would carry out a task and 60 minutes to accomplish it as a group. One person in the group was randomly designated as the "operator," whose job was to control the user interface of the game.
To determine who became the leader of each group, the researchers asked the participants both before and after the game to nominate one to five people for this distinction. The scientists found that those who talked more were also more likely to be nominated. This remained true after controlling for a number of variables, such as previous knowledge of the game, various personality traits, or intelligence.
How leaders influence people to believe | Michael Dowling | Big Think www.youtube.com
In an interview with PsyPost, MacLaren shared that "the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Another find was that gender bias seemed to have a strong effect on who was considered a leader. "In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man," explained MacLaren. "The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes."
The great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg passed away on July 23. This is our tribute.