Self-Confidence Makes or Breaks Peer Perceptions of Talent

September 10, 2014
Aimee Simone, Associate Editor

Students viewed their confident peers as talented, regardless of their actual abilities.

Students viewed their confident peers as talented, regardless of their actual abilities.

Overconfident students appear more talented to their peers than they actually are, according to the results of a recent study.

The authors of the study, published August 27, 2014, in PLOS ONE, set out to determine why self-deception of one’s abilities is so common, even though it has the potential to be harmful. The research team tested a controversial theory that self-deception has evolved as a means to deceive others.

In the study, first-year undergraduate students from 2 London Universities met in small groups facilitated by a tutor on a weekly basis to discuss and debate course material. At the end of the first meeting, the students were asked to predict the actual grade and class rank that each of their classmates would earn on their next assignment, in addition to their own performance. Their self-predictions were then compared with their actual grades and ranks to determine self-deception, and the difference between the median estimate made by peers and an individual’s actual grade was used to measure deception.

Six weeks after the original test, the study was conducted once more to determine whether the students gained a better perception of their peers’ abilities as they spent more time together. The results indicated those who rated themselves higher were also rated higher by others, regardless of their actual grade.

This relationship between overconfidence and peer perception was not affected by sex, age, family income, the size of the meeting group, or which university the students attended. Self-deception and deception remained significantly associated after the second test, suggesting that peer judgment changes alongside changes in self-perception.

The study authors also found that students were able to correctly predict their own ranks, but not their actual grade. In addition, students’ perceptions of their classmates’ abilities were unaffected by their self-deception when predicting ranks, but not grades.

“This may simply be because ranking individuals is a computationally easier exercise than predicting grades, since each individual can only be assigned a unique rank but can be assigned any of a set of grades,” the researchers explained. “Alternatively, directly comparing individuals with each other may allow people to form more accurate evaluations of their abilities, compared to when they evaluate them in isolation.”

Students who overestimated their own abilities were also more likely to overestimate their classmates’ scores, the results uncovered. Overconfident students tended to overestimate the actual grades of their peers, while students lacking in confidence underestimated grades. Self-deception, however, did not predict overestimation of class rank. At week 6, self-deception was no longer correlated with an increased likelihood of being deceived.

“Our findings suggest that people may not always reward the more accomplished individual but rather the more self-deceived,” the authors concluded. “From our smallest interactions to the institutions we build, self-deception may play a profound role in shaping the world we inhabit.”