New research from the University of Notre Dame shows how people can reap the rewards of confidence without risking the social penalties of overconfidence.

The study finds that when a person expresses confidence nonverbally through the use of eye contact, gesturing, adopting an expansive posture or speaking in a strong voice, the individual can enjoy the social benefits of expressing confidence while simultaneously reducing the risk of being punished for arrogance.

The research involved a series of experiments in which participants met potential collaborators or advisers and decided which person — the confident or cautious — they trusted and wanted to work with most.

Overall, participants strongly preferred the confident candidate; however, once they learned that the person was overconfident and the cautious person was well-calibrated, caution won.

“Interestingly, though, we found that if the overly confident candidates expressed their confidence nonverbally, they remained the most trusted and desirable choice, even when revealed to be over-the-top,” said Nathan Meikle, Ph.D., postdoctoral research and teaching associate in the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

The findings demonstrate how politicians, business leaders and others are able to retain their status and influence even when they are potentially exposed as being overconfident: by using “plausible deniability” — the ability to deny responsibility due to a lack of concrete evidence.

“The plausible deniability hypothesis explains why overconfidence sometimes, but not always, is punished,” Meikle said. “For example, verifiably overconfident claims, void of plausible deniability, will face consequences. However, there are a number of ways people can create plausible deniability.”

The researchers use President Donald Trump as an example.

“One strategy is to make audacious claims about future events,” Meikle said. “President Trump frequently makes bold claims, such as he alone can bring coal mining jobs back to West Virginia.”

“Future claims necessarily enjoy some degree of plausible deniability because they cannot be proven wrong in the moment. Thus, individuals boasting about future events would be expected to enjoy the benefits of expressing confidence while simultaneously sidestepping the potential costs.”

“However, even if overconfident claims are eventually proven false, people can still create plausible deniability by undermining the messenger, such as calling it ‘fake news’,” said Meikle.

On the other hand, there are those who make bold, specific claims with little hope of plausible deniability coming to the rescue — such as a coach boasting his team will go undefeated.

For example, Ken Adelman, writing for the Washington Post in 2002, claimed, “I believe demolishing [Saddam] Hussein’s military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk.”

“Adelman invokes some plausible deniability by making a confident prediction about the future,” Meikle said. “However, he simultaneously undermines the plausible deniability by using the word ‘cakewalk,’ as there’s virtually no plausible deniability when using that particular word to describe a war. If one person dies, it can be argued that it was not a cakewalk — let alone the 500,000 people who actually died.”

The findings are published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Source: University of Notre Dame