Psychologists have long known that people are wildly overconfident in their abilities: Most drivers think they are above average; most academics place themselves in the top echelon of their field. We all live in Lake Wobegon, mentally speaking. But why would this cognitive quirk come to exist? You’d think it would be useful, evolutionarily speaking””and, well, just plain useful””to have an accurate understanding of one’s abilities. For one thing, you’d know what to work on in order to achieve true excellence, rather than ersatz excellence.
A new study suggests an answer: Overconfident people are perceived as having more social status. In one of several related experiments, researchers had people take a geography quiz ””first alone, then in pairs. The task involved placing cities on a map of North America unmarked by state or national borders. The participants rated themselves on their own abilities and rated each other, secretly, on a number of qualities.
As expected, most people rated their own geographic knowledge far higher than actual performance would justify. In the interesting new twist, however, the people most prone to overrate themselves got higher marks from their partners on whether they “deserved respect and admiration, had influence over the decisions, led the decision-making process, and contributed to the decisions.”