Very often, people who had a rich upbringing and come from a good family — let’s call them high-class — seem to be able to convince other people that they’re more competent than they actually are. Whether it’s some politicians or the head of marketing at your company, examples of this effect are abundant. And according to a new study performed by psychologists at the University of Virginia, this effect can be explained by overconfidence, which stranger misinterpret as competence.
Yet another advantage of higher social class
“Drawing on a collection of findings suggesting that different social class contexts have powerful effects on people’s sense of self, we propose that social class shapes the beliefs that people hold about their abilities, and that this, in turn, has important implications for how status hierarchies perpetuate,” the authors wrote in their study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The study consisted of four experiments. In the first experiment, 150,000 small-business owners in Mexico seeking a loan provided information about their income and education level. They were also asked to self-report their social status by selecting a rung on a ladder. As a measure of competence, each participant completed a memory test and had to estimate how well they thought they did compared to other participants. According to the results, higher-class people generally performed better than others — though not nearly to the degree that they assumed they did.
A second study involving 230 University of Virginia students showed that students belonging to higher social class failed to outperform their peers in a trivia game, despite the fact that they were almost certain that they had. For this part, social class was assessed by the students themselves (how they saw themselves relative to others in the United States), as well as their parents’ income and education.
The same students also participated in a mock job interview that was taped by the researchers. A group of strangers was instructed to watch the interviews and rate the candidates. Interestingly, these people generally selected the same people who had overestimated their trivia abilities earlier. Overconfidence, it seems, won the selection committee over.
Previously, other studies found that overconfident people were generally perceived as more competent. However, the researchers say that they would not like the public to think that they should strive to be overconfident. Stock market crashes, car accidents, people’s lives and livelihoods have been lost because of overconfidence during critical situations. Instead, the findings should inspire managers, recruiters, and voters to focus more on facts about people rather than where these individuals came from.