December 28, 2019 Leave your thoughts

cool paper in 3 min (10)

Belmi, P., Neale, M. A., Reiff, D., & Ulfe, R. (2019). The social advantage of miscalibrated individuals: The relationship between social class and overconfidence and its implications for class-based inequality. Journal of personality and social psychology.

by Zahra Arjmani

Why do rich people remain rich for generations and poor people struggle to change their fortune? We often hear and see that highly-educated people tend to come from highly-educated households. We read a lot about such “social class privilege” and how this privilege shapes us. This paper uncovers an important and interesting psychological mechanism for this privilege by asking: what is it about an elite upbringing that makes people feel qualified for responsibilities for which they have little competence for? 

In 4 experiments and testing over 150,000 people, they made two important points: (1) that people coming from higher social classes are more likely to have an inflated sense of their abilities; (2) More importantly, not only are these overconfident people from higher social classes deluded about themselves, but they also appear more competent in the eyes of others – even when objective tests show that they are no better.

In experiment 1, working with a credit scoring firm, 150,949 small-business owners from Mexico who were applying for a loan were asked to estimate their own social class, participate in an online memory test and evaluate their own performance compared to all other applicants. The results showed that people generally overestimated their own performance relative to others but, this overconfidence was stronger in people from higher socio-economic status.

In experiment 3, they flipped the question and asked: does social class affect how overconfident people appear to others? They constructed a mock job interview and students from various social classes took part in the interviews and were videotaped. A separate group of observers (we call them the Committee) who did not know the student then watched the videos and rated the candidates. The committee members tended to select the same overconfident people from privileged background. Class-driven overconfidence was misinterpreted as competence.

These results are extremely important. They show that the overconfidence of the higher class individuals can help perpetuate the existing class hierarchy: it can provide privileged people a path to social advantage by making them appear more competent in the eyes of others.

The paper is cool for many reasons:

  • The sample size is very large and a number of various methods (field study, lab study, mock interview) with high external and ecological validity are employed.
  • A number of different definitions of overconfidence and social class were used, even though the results were not necessarily convergent and in-line with their hypotheses

The paper’s extreme length and old-fashioned style of using tables and no graphical visualisations of the data makes it very difficult to read. It is, nonetheless, quite worth reading.

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