Character  &  Context

Can You Really 'Fake it Until You Make it'?

Image of empowered woman with a cape and mask on looking off into the distance with her hands on her hips.

Confidence is one of the most highly valued traits in our society. And rightly so – we defer to confident people, we assume they know what they’re talking about, we’re interested in them romantically, and we ascribe them higher social status. The underlying assumption is that confident people are self-assured because life has taught them to be: confident athletes are winners, confident daters are desirable, and so on.

So powerful are these forces that a self-confidence industry has sprung up, teaching people to come across as more confident than they feel. As Jordan Peterson explains in his recent book, people who appear confident create a positive feedback loop, whereby their peers perceive them as more valuable and treat them better, thus inspiring more confidence. Essentially, “fake it until you make it”.

This notion, that portraying more confidence than you feel can increase your social standing, is pervasive in popular culture. But despite anecdotal accounts, how this works (and whether it works) has received little direct scientific scrutiny. Indeed, some researchers have argued that the opposite should be true; overconfidence should have social costs, particularly over the long run, as other people realize that you can’t back up the claims you’re selling. My colleagues and I set out to test these competing predictions, investigating whether people who have more confidence than their abilities warrant really can “fake it till they make it.”

To test this possibility, we followed almost a thousand high school boys across three school years. We measured athletic ability with a series of physical challenges and academic ability with a combination of grades and aptitude test scores. We also measured confidence in each domain, having students rate how they saw themselves compared to their peers. Finally, we measured their social standing within the school, using an approach called social network analysis. Each student named up to ten of their closest friends, and we created links between students who had named each other. We used these linked to form a network that allowed us to calculate various measures of the social standing of each student.

Our key question was this - would overconfident students show an increase or decrease in popularity and social standing over time? That is, after accounting for their actual ability, would student’s beliefs in themselves bring them more and higher status friends as time went on? Or would their overconfident beliefs cost them friends, as people came to realize that their self-impressions were inflated?

Despite the fact that the study followed students for several years, and that they were well known to each other (as classmates), we found no tendency for overconfident students to experience social costs – people did not seem to see through their inflated confidence, or if they did, they didn’t appear to care. In contrast, some support emerged for the idea that overconfidence is socially beneficial. Specifically, students who were overconfident in their sporting ability tended to become more popular over time, though those overconfident in their academic ability did not.

It’s hard to know why athletic overconfidence had a social benefit when academic overconfidence did not. The effects of overconfidence on later popularity were not large, so it’s possible they were masked by measurement vagaries or other unpredictable events. Alternatively, perhaps athletics are simply more important socially than academics in the all-boys high school where we conducted our research. If climbing to the top of the football team was more beneficial socially than the debate club, it might have led to our effects. Regardless, our study suggests that overconfidence really can help you get ahead in life.

Dr. Sean Murphy is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences.

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