Study reveals the trick to expressing confidence

Confidence isn’t in and of itself a virtue, it’s all about how it’s demonstrated. Psychologist Janina Steinmetz wrote an article looking at that idea.

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A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology back in 1982, used a hypothetical tennis match to showcase the impact displays of confidence on perception. The experiment proved that “optimistic predictions” had a much bigger influence on the imaginary players perceived competence than they’re actual performance did. The perception of one’s capabilities is governed by mannerisms and bravado, though the execution must be measured.

Confidence isn’t in and of itself a virtue, it’s all about how it’s demonstrated. Recently, psychologist Janina Steinmetz wrote an article surveying the line that separates self-conviction and arrogance. Steinmetz believes tales of our achievements should always be tagged with the measures and obstacles that made them possible. There has to be a nuance in projections of confidence otherwise, the expectation to deliver becomes a nearly impossible one to uphold.


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The silent factor

This complexity of confidence was tackled in the March issue of The Journal Of Personality and Social Psychology. Researchers set up a fun experiment, to establish a difference between verbal and non-verbal advertisements of confidence and its influence on perception. Participants were tasked with choosing a partner to potentially win a $50 prize. The participants were given information from possible collaborators, who evidenced their confidence by texting about their performance on the study’s task. The high confidence actor reported doing well via text, while the low confidence actor,  reported the opposite. These actors were not seen by the participants, allowing the researchers to examine the power of verbal information regarding perception, exclusively.

Before finding out how the actors actually did on the task, participants were asked to rate how desirable it would be to work with either the low confidence and high confidence actor. The first set of results for the verbal condition shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Before finding out how the high confidence actors actually performed they ranked the highest, after finding out that low confidence and high confidence actors both performed poorly, the high confidence actors were ranked lower than the low confidence actors.

The most interesting findings came out of the non-verbal condition. Instead of receiving text messages participants were made to watch their potential partners on video. High confidence actors talked loudly, calmly, and maintained eye contact with their respective interviewers for the duration of the video. Low confidence performers did just the opposite. They appeared anxious, distracted, and sheepish.  This go round, the high confidence actors ranked as desirable collaborators both before their scores were revealed and after.

Elizabeth Tenney, Nathan Meikle, David Hunsaker, Don Moore, and Cameron Anderson, were the authors behind the new study, and they had some pretty interesting theories about why results shook out the way they did.

Because the displays of confidence weren’t tied to a statement, in particular, participants more readily assumed their non-verbal actor’s confidence was more like a fundamental aspect of their personality as opposed to a deceitful boast specific to the task. Confidence attached to statements has to be warranted and backed to reap the collaboration benefits if not the adverse effect will invariably be achieved.


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CW Headley|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at cheadley@theladders.com.