You’ve heard it since grade school: prepare, prepare again, and then prepare some more. Preparation is a hallmark of success across virtually all endeavors, from athletics to rocket science.
One doesn’t have to search through a history book very long before finding some quotes on preparation, especially American history. Ben Franklin famously said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Still not convinced? How about Abraham Lincoln; the great emancipator once proclaimed “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening my ax.”
The verdict is clearly in; preparation is an essential building block of success. Surprisingly, however, a new study just released by Ohio State University has uncovered a downside to preparation. Researchers say that preparing for one activity or challenge can result in misplaced confidence regarding other subjects.
Diligently preparing for a single task, let’s say a big test or exam, usually results in feelings of confidence heading into that test. While that in and of itself isn’t a negative, that confidence can infiltrate other aspects of one’s life that they aren’t nearly as prepared for or informed on.
To illustrate their point, the study’s authors gave the example of an individual preparing for a big job interview. Meanwhile, a local election is happening soon and that person is leaning towards voting for a particular candidate. The individual prepares extensively for the interview and feels super confident about getting the job. But, that confidence also makes the person overly certain about their choice for the upcoming election, even though they don’t know enough about the issues or that candidate’s campaign.
“You’re going to feel a general sense of confidence as a result of being prepared for the job interview,” explains lead study author Patrick Carroll, an associate professor of psychology at The Ohio State University at Lima, in a university release. “And when you think about which candidate to support, you may start to feel confidence in your thoughts about that issue – not realizing that the confidence is actually coming from your preparations for the job interview.”
This relationship between preparation and overconfidence in other life areas was observed across three experiments. One experiment had college students prepare for some bad news regarding how a peer perceives them. That preparation appeared to strengthen and entrench participants’ beliefs on a completely different subject.
“Being prepared in one area gave people more confidence in their thoughts in a completely different area, and this helped strengthen their attitudes,” Carroll comments.
Another experiment asked participants to write down different strategies on how to deal with various challenges or situations and came to the same conclusions.
“In different studies, we looked at different ways of being prepared,” Carroll adds. “Ultimately, preparedness is about knowing how to respond to future outcomes.”
In summation, Carroll and his team believe that we should all be a little more aware of how confidence or preparedness in one area may influence our decision making on an entirely different subject.
“We sometimes feel like we’re leaning in one direction on a decision and then something changes and we feel more convinced about the choice,” he concludes. “It is worth considering what caused that shift. Your newfound confidence may be coming from somewhere you aren’t aware of.”
These findings shouldn’t be interpreted as an excuse to stop preparing. Preparation is still undoubtedly an important part of success, just be sure to prepare equally across all activities. Allowing preparation for one task to influence a decision on something else entirely could end up backfiring in a big way.
The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.