In a meritocracy, talent is supposed to rise to the top. That way, important positions like political and executive offices can be filled by those best-equipped to do the job.
But when it comes to sizing up others’ abilities, a new study says we pay more attention to confidence than competence. People with an inflated view of their own abilities are judged by others to be more capable; conversely, people with low confidence are thought to be less capable.
In the study, which was published Aug. 27 in PLOS ONE, university students predicted their own performance and the performance of their classmates in a small tutorial. Students who ranked themselves higher than their actual results—the overconfident students—were also overrated by their peers. Students who underrated themselves were similarly given lower-than-achieved rankings by their peers. These results were consistent whether the predictions were made at the beginning of the term or at the end, when students had ostensibly become more familiar with one another’s work.
“These findings suggest that people don’t always reward the most accomplished individual but rather the most self-deceived,” said Vivek Nityananda, one of the study authors.
There implications span across the workforce. Overconfident CEOs make unwise acquisitions; hot air on Wall Street leads to market volatility. The “confidence gap”—the propensity of men to overrate and women to underrate themselves—suggests that women are more likely to be unfairly perceived as less competent than their male peers.
When high-impact roles are filled with those who merely think they’re the best and the brightest, society pays a price.