I’m tired of seeing bits of social science research taken out of context and presented to the public in soundbites that purport to offer insight into life — strategies for being happy or successful. There’s nothing wrong with seeking better ways to be happy or successful, and to the extent that academic research sheds light on the matter, journalists should examine the research and share it with inquiring non-specialists. But too often this sharing is done irresponsibly, in the form of soundbites that purport to have the authority of “research” behind them — soundbites that encapsulate a provocative idea without offering the reader enough context to think critically about it. A particularly dangerous article in this genre cropped up in my newsfeed a few days ago, courtesy New York Magazine: It Pays to Be Overconfident, Even When You Have No Idea What You’re Doing. Really?
The article summarizes a couple of academic papers that suggest that overconfident behavior — speaking firmly and making exaggerated claims of your ability — leads to increased social status and influence, and that even when people “overestimate their skills so grievously that you might expect to see backlash,” there is usually “insufficient downside” to deter the behavior. The benefits of overconfidence outweigh the drawbacks, even when the overconfidence has been exposed as such, so you might as well “act like you run the place.” Donald Trump may be a blowhard but it hasn’t hurt him — he’s still rich and famous, in some part because of his arrogance.
What should we make of this claim by academic psychologists, filtered through popular journalism, that it “pays” to be overconfident? I should point out that the article is styled as a casual update on recent research, not a definitive statement on the question of how to behave. The author acknowledges that overconfidence has some disadvantages, and never tells us explicitly what attitude we should adopt. We are even told that the psychologists who conducted the research are undecided about what its practical implications should be. But it’s the title of the article that will linger in readers’ minds — “It Pays To Be Overconfident” — along with the idea that this dictum has been somehow vetted by science. The downsides of overconfidence are never thoroughly explored, the question of what makes good or bad research in psychology is ignored, and the criteria for judging a behavior’s worth are never mentioned: if it “pays” to be overconfident, whom does it pay, and in what measure?
The article mentions the Iraq war as an example of “overconfidence getting us into trouble,” and I feel the key points of the article can be rebutted simply by giving this one terrifying example the attention it deserves. Why doesn’t the author linger just a little here? Yes, overconfidence paid off handsomely for a bunch of elected officials as they sought to lure a nation into war. The beneficiaries of overconfidence were those in power, and the benefit came in the form of influence. The losers were everyone else: the Iraqis who lost their lives, the U.S. soldiers who lost their lives, an entire group of nations that got sucked into a costly, destructive, and unnecessary war. As a behavior, overconfidence was both highly valuable to a small group of powermongers and extremely damaging to society at large. Does it really pay to be overconfident? Of course the answer depends on whether you look at the immediate returns for the overconfident individual, or at the long-term consequences for the many people in that individual’s sphere of influence. If we were to judge behaviors by the former criterion — considering only the immediate returns for the perpetrator — it would be just as easy to argue that stealing is beneficial. And of course, many people think it is. I don’t. I don’t think we should live our lives by blindly adopting whatever behavior brings us maximum individual advantage. I believe we have a moral obligation to behave with honesty and integrity. Overconfidence conflicts with those qualities, especially when it is adopted as a deliberate social strategy. To me this point is so obvious that I shouldn’t need to write about it, but I fear that in a sea of soundbites claiming the authority of science, we very easily forget the obvious.