The thing about people is they love, love, love confidence. Humans have a deep-seated tendency to instinctively trust and respect people who talk a good game, regardless of whether or not they have the competence to back up their bombast.
This is a deep human bias that can have important consequences. As Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time, told Science of Us contributor Matthew Hutson back in January, because of how we’re wired, just about “everyone” is vulnerable to con men. And as Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency has shown, extreme displays of confidence can even be a ticket to the nomination of a major American political party. (One Trump supporter at a rally summed up the Donald’s appeal rather eloquently when asked if he supported the candidate: “Hell, yeah! He’s no bullshit. All balls. Fuck you all balls. That’s what I’m about.”)
If people are so apparently naturally magnetized by the Über-confident, then what can you do to prevent yourself from getting hypnotized by the “fuck you all balls” bros in your life? One study from 2013 gives an elegant — and straightforward — option. According to University of Utah psychologist Bryan Bonner, who has studied how people defer to confidence in group settings, confidence is one of several “messy proxies for expertise” that people refer to in lieu of actual ability; others include race, gender, and extroversion.
In a 2013 study he conducted, students were given questions like “What is the minimum freeway-driving distance from Salt Lake City to New York City?” and “How much did the Guinness record holder for ‘heaviest person of all time’ weigh?” They considered the questions in two phases: In the first, all the students pondered the questions on their own; in the second, some again did so alone own while others were put into groups of up to 16 to deliberate. Within those groups, some were asked to think about the credibility of the people pitching their estimates, while others had no such intervention.
In keeping with other research, the groups were more accurate than the individuals on average, though some standout individuals outdid the groups. But what’s even more fascinating were the group dynamics: In the intervention-free group, the people with the most self-reported confidence in their estimates had an outsize influence on the answers given. The takeaway, then, is that in the absence of considered thinking people fall back on proxies like confidence.
Bonner has also found that when information is ambiguous — like, say, if you don’t know exactly what the rules or desired outcomes of a situation are — then people are more deferential to the extroverted members of a group. We defer to the boisterous and brash, because if they weren’t right, why would they be so loud? (Maybe because they’re narcissists).
This is unsettling for those of us who work in teams or live in families: The loudest person in the room is the person who gets listened to, rather than the expert — at least in a lab setting. But Bonner’s research suggests that your deference (and that of your colleagues, perhaps) can be checked if you consider just how much Dave from the San Francisco office actually knows about the project you’ve been toiling on. Remember that the next time you’re at bar trivia: Don’t defer to the most fuck you all balls member of your squad — consider who actually knows their stuff.