Daniel Kahneman famously remarked that if he had a magic wand that could change one thing about human psychology he would eliminate our superiority complex. Now new research by Joey Cheng, an assistant professor of psychology at York University, shows that overconfidence can be contagious. “If you have been exposed to an overconfident person you become more likely to overestimate your own relative standing,” she says. It’s a tendency that could cause dangerously diluted thinking to spread through a team.
Cheng says that she had been inspired by the anecdotal reports of behavior on Wall Street, where arrogance appears to be rife. “When you go to other sectors like education, you often don't hear teachers being described in the same way.” These differences led her to wonder whether certain groups of people might actually encourage the development of an inflated ego in others. Some previous research had hinted at this possibility, showing that bankers overconfidence tends to grow with their time spent in the profession - which would make sense, if they were “catching” the behaviour from their colleagues – but Cheng wanted to put the idea to the tests in the laboratory.
In further experiments, Cheng confirmed that the illusion of superiority, caught from one peer, can then be transmitted to another person - a “cascade” that could lead it to permeate through a group from a single source. She also documented a “spill-over effect”, so that once you catch overconfidence in one domain you may become more arrogant in another. To make matters worse, the consequences can last long after the interaction - just as a few minutes of exposure to an arrogant person skewed the participants’ own judgements days later.
Cheng suggests that organisations rethink the kinds of behaviour they reward in their employees.
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