Culture & Society

The Hidden Social Advantage

We tend to reward the overconfidence of upper-class individuals, even when they get it wrong.

May 26, 2020

| by Corey Binns


A student waits to be interviewed. Credit: Reuters/Patrick T. Fallon

Unconscious beliefs that leaders behave assertively and independently can compromise your organization’s performance. | Reuters/Patrick T. Fallon

During all those Zoom office calls, did it ever occur to you that the quietest colleagues might also be the most competent? And yet, the talkative types who dominate the call tend to be viewed as the smartest — and generally come from higher up in the social pecking order.

Margaret Neale, the Adams Distinguished Professor of Management, Emerita, at Stanford Graduate School of Business, recently co-authored a study highlighting how people who are overconfident — believing they are better than others, when evidence suggests otherwise — can succeed even when they lack competence. What’s more, overconfident types usually come from higher social classes.

“We really need to be more discerning about confidence,” says Peter Belmi, a former PhD student at Stanford GSB who co-authored the study with Neale and is now an assistant professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “Just because somebody can speak very assertively, or can speak in a very confident way, doesn’t mean that person’s smart.”

As a result of our tendency to be swayed by displays of overt confidence, we may be reinforcing an already unfair social hierarchy. When overconfident people from upper-class backgrounds walk into a job interview or are vying for a leadership role, they have an immediate advantage, the researchers say. We can’t help but fall for their bravado, endowing them with greater talent and skills than they in fact possess.

Neale points to a body of research showing that people with skills and expertise are ironically more tentative and uncertain in their area of specialty precisely because they know so much. People who are not experts, however, often exude far more confidence in their beliefs than their skills and experience would justify.

Our nation’s struggle with COVID-19 has brought these imbalances to the forefront.

“More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing,” former President Barack Obama said this month in his virtual commencement address to graduates of historically black colleges and universities. “A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”

Uncoupling Confidence From Competence

In their study, Neale and Belmi set out to capture people’s views about themselves, compared to their mastery of a particular subject and their social class.

In the first of four experiments, the researchers conducted a field study of 150,000 small business owners in Mexico applying for loans ranging from $400 to $100,000. During visits to each business, loan officers asked prospective borrowers to play a flashcard game to test their memory and executive function. “These were people engaging in activities where they were doing their best to put their best foot forward,” Neale says. In the game, participants were shown an image, and after pressing a key, they were shown a second image. Participants were then asked if the second image matched the first. People with more education and higher income tended to act with greater confidence and to think that they’d performed better on the test than their lower-status counterparts. When asked to predict how well they’d performed, participants with relatively high social class made predictions about their performance that often exceeded how well they’d actually done.


Just because somebody can speak very assertively, or can speak in a very confident way, doesn’t mean that person’s smart.
Peter Belmi

Their second study, consisting of 500 survey respondents, found that people with higher household incomes, more education, and more highly educated parents were more likely to overestimate how well they performed on a general intelligence test relative to others. When compared to lower-class participants, this group also placed greater importance on their social rank when responding to questions such as “How much do you desire having higher social status compared with others?” and statements like “In an organizational setting, I want to be in a position with the most power.”

In a third experiment, the researchers surveyed 1,000 people and gave them a general trivia quiz, including questions such as “Ascorbic acid is better known as (a) vitamin C or (b) ethanol” or “What martial arts term means ‘gentle way,’ tai chi or judo?” Belmi says he tested every question ahead of time “to make sure everyone would suck at this game.” At the end of their interviews, applicants were asked to judge how well they thought they’d performed.

Participants with relatively high social class were very confident that they’d done well on the trivia test. But when the researchers calculated the test scores, they found that participants with relatively high social class were just as bad at the trivia game as their lower-class counterparts.

In their final experiment, the researchers asked undergraduates at the University of Virginia to answer the same trivia test from their earlier experiment. Students from families earning more than $150,000 rated their scores in the 60th percentile when in reality they had fared much worse (48th percentile), and their scores were lower than those of participants from lower-class families.

Then the researchers went a step further: They conducted mock job interviews with the UVA undergraduates and invited independent observers to evaluate the students. When asked to classify the interviewees, the independent observers concluded that the overconfident, upper-class students were smarter and more hirable, despite any objective evidence that they were more capable.

“It’s a really interesting and powerful demonstration of the upside for the individual, and potentially the downside for society,” Neale says. “An inclusive environment is beneficial for organizations because you get access to more human resources, human capital.”

A Message to Leaders

Even though people who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds tend to act more collaboratively and less independently, they still have significant contributions to make at work, Neale says. “It just means they make them in a different way.” But our deep-seated conviction that leaders behave assertively and independently compromises organizational performance and society at large, she says.

Belmi agrees, adding that interviewers in the real world should be more discerning and skeptical when meeting with job applicants. “We need to be really mindful about confidence,” he says. “It does not necessarily always represent competence.” He recommends giving recruits work samples to better assess their competency. To find the best accountant, he says, don’t ask applicants, “When was the last time you shined as an accountant?” Instead, give applicants the same accounting problem to solve — to set candidates from varying backgrounds on a more level testing ground.

“We’re showing that we probably need to be thinking about these everyday mechanisms that on the outside seem benign, but actually they might have deeper implications for the reproduction of social hierarchies,” Belmi says.

Anyone in a position of power, Belmi says, can teach underrepresented individuals how to speak up more. “But,” he emphasizes, “as leaders, we can also be quieter and learn how to listen.”

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