Does confidence have any relationship to actual skill?


Not necessarily. Confidence is also a personality trait. Confidence alone does not predict accuracy.

Researchers were able to predict how confident someone would be about a test score just by noting how confident they were about a completely unrelated previous test score.

Via The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us:

Remarkably, just by knowing how confident someone was on the first test, it was possible to predict how confident they would be on the second test. Of those people who scored in the top half on confidence in the first test they took, 90 percent scored in the top half on the second test. Yet confidence did not predict accuracy; the more confident people were no more accurate than the less confident people. Confidence also was unrelated to intelligence. Other experiments have shown that confidence is a general trait: People who are highly confident of their skills in one domain, such as visual perception, also tend to be highly confident of their skills in other domains, such as memory. In short, confidence appears to be a consistent quality that varies from one person to the next, but has relatively little to do with one’s underlying knowledge or mental ability. One thing that does appear to influence confidence is genes. According to a recent study by a group of economists in Sweden, identical twins are more similar to each other in how confident they are of their own abilities than are fraternal twins. Since identical twins have essentially the same genes, but fraternal twins are no more similar genetically than ordinary siblings, confidence must have at least some genetic basis. Your confidence isn’t entirely determined by your genetic makeup, but it’s not entirely independent of it.

And yet we trust blind confidence far more than we do someone who goes the extra mile to double check what they’re saying:

In one of these tapes, the doctor just said, “You have nothing to lose,” and went ahead with the prescription. In another, he consulted a reference book before writing the prescription. The patients viewing these videos found the confident doctors most satisfying, and they rated the one who looked in a book to be the least satisfying of all.

Is confidence ever accurate? Should we trust it at all? Yes, once you have a baseline.

When you know how confident someone is in general you can use that to help determine how much their confidence in any specific area actually reflects their knowledge or competence:

When dealing with people we know well, we can judge whether their confidence is high or low for them. With knowledge of the range of confidence someone exhibits, you can use confidence as a reasonable predictor of that person’s knowledge; just like you, people generally act more confident when they know more about a topic and less confident when they know less… If you don’t know how much confidence someone expresses across a range of situations, you have no way to judge whether the confidence you see at any particuiar moment reflects their knowledge or personality.

Frighteningly, we prefer confidence over expertise. We take advice from confident people even if they’ve been wrong more often than less confident sources. Confidence can be enough to get you made leader of a group — even if you don’t know what you’re talking about. Narcissists score higher in job interviews because of their irrational self-confidence. They also appear to be better leaders so we let them rise to the top but they’re not better, they’re worse. In fact, most of us are guilty of dangerous levels of overconfidence.

So we know to only trust confidence from sources where we have a baseline. But how should we behave? Is it better to come off with too much bravado than not enough? Is humility a virtue?

As a general rule, be moderately overconfident. Overconfidence is performance-enhancing and increases productivity. People prefer others who are prideful. Men, specifically, should not be modest. Self-esteem can be sexy. In fact, that may be the reason that AXE body spray can actually work.

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