Latimer: Cult of confidence can be annoying

The probability of the most confident person in the room also being the most competent is only 15 per cent better than chance.

Our society is run largely on the cult of confidence. Whoever is the most certain, the most out-spoken, the most insistent tends to win the day in most arenas.

Maybe this comes from our U.S. neighbours to the south as their media certainly saturates Canadian airwaves, or maybe it’s simple human nature, but confidence is one character trait that often brings advantage to those who have it.

You might be surprised to hear that at least one study has found individuals who are competent but less confident make better and more likable leaders.

A new study out of the University of Utah looked at this question and attempted to separate confidence from actual knowledge in a small group setting. Groups were asked to answer factual questions.

In the group setting, those who responded most confidently were also the most influential regardless of their accuracy. Interestingly, when the groups were first asked to consider reasons why certain people might really know the answers or why they might prefer certain answers, confidence had less influence and accuracy fared better.

This study was meant to mimic the situation many of us face in work or volunteer meetings.

One or two people can often dominate the agenda if they simply appear to know what they’re talking about.

It also makes me think of the many people who get taken in by charlatans making bold but unsubstantiated claims—often health or beauty related. This study’s author calls confidence a “messy proxy” for expertise. Conscious consideration or re-framing meetings into fact-finding or brainstorming sessions can help to work around the effect of confidence in determining solutions.

In meetings we can keep a running list of conclusions or ideas or use other methods to switch focus from who is convincing to what is actually being said.

A recent book on this topic—Confidence by business psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic—reports that confidence is not particularly correlated with competence. The probability of the most confident person in the room also being the most competent is only 15 per cent better than chance.

He also claims confidence doesn’t really serve those who have it—humble but competent people are more successful and better liked than the over-confident.

To be sure, no one really likes a know-it-all. So should we all stop trying to instill confidence in our kids? As in most things, perhaps moderation is key.

We are likely to be happier and more secure with a certain degree of self-confidence. Sometimes we also need to be able to show assertiveness. Like it or not, our culture does seem to place value on confidence.

I would agree that this basic confidence and ability to be assertive when necessary is different from simply being the loudest in the room or the braggart who always seems to know better than everyone else. I think we would be well advised to quietly gain competence and knowledge in the areas we want to influence. In the end we will certainly come out looking better if we are accurate.


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