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Arrogance Is Contagious, Study Finds

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Oct 9, 2020

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Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

The overconfidence of a few may readily spread to others, resulting in a “cascade-like spread of biased beliefs” across social groups, according to a new study.

Published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in June, the study attempted to understand the role of social transmission in the emergence of “confidence traditions” in groups, teams, and organizations. After performing a series of experiments assessing individuals’ confidence levels, before and after being introduced to overconfident peers, the researchers found that when we’re exposed to people who are overconfident, the mindset rubs off on us, and leads us to recalibrate our self-assessments. “If you have been exposed to an overconfident person, then you become more likely to overestimate your own relative standing,” Joey Cheng, an assistant professor of psychology at York University and lead author of the study, told BBC.

“…after working together, initially non-similar strangers became more similar to each other in terms of over-placement [or, ‘the exaggerated belief that you are better than others’], suggesting the convergence of over-confidence,” the researchers stated. The study also found that the effect of this “transmission” of overconfidence persisted even days after initial exposure, with the “culture of arrogance” permeating through a group from person to person, after having originated from a single source. In addition, the researchers discovered that this acquired overconfidence “spills over” across different domains of the individuals’ lives.


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“I think the research is very interesting and well-conducted, and helps us understand the origins of overconfidence and why it is larger in some groups than others,” Ethan Zell, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina who was not involved in the study, noted. He also went on to hypothesize an explanation for the contagiousness of overconfidence — proposing that the overconfident behavior of some may evolve into social norms within groups, encouraging other members to calibrate their confidence levels. “Seeing others exhibit overconfident behavior could make it seem more culturally valued or appropriate,” he suggested.

Exploring a similar explanation, the study does take social or financial incentives that reward overconfidence into account. However, rather than considering cultural incentives and transmission to be mutually exclusive, the paper states that they reinforce similar levels of overconfidence within groups. Citing the example of the “pervasiveness of overconfidence observed in Wall Street investors,” the study attributes it not only to the transmission of overconfidence, but to the “enormous financial and prestige incentives that reward overconfidence,” which outweigh “the occasional costs from risky investments and mistakes.”

Alluding to the collapse of Enron in 2001, Cheng draws attention to the company’s “culture of arrogance,” and theorizes a similar social contagion led it to “take on increasing risks and break many laws under the illusion of invincibility,” ultimately leading to its failure. This contagion, she says, “…could have led many individuals to have adopted the questionable practices that contributed to its downfall.” Using that as a cautionary tale, she advises organizations to rethink the kinds of behaviors they reward, adding that they “need to be very mindful of the effects of certain individuals on others because their overconfidence could really spread widely.”

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Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an associate editor with The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, and a painter by shaukh. She has her own podcast called #DateNightsWithD on Spotify. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

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