Over the course of my career, I’ve worked with some freakishly intelligent people. When interacting with them, my MO has always been to keep relatively quiet, remembering the words of wisdom commonly attributed to both Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln: “Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”
But what if this fear of sounding like an idiot was essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy? In other words, what if believing I was comparatively unintelligent was making me seem comparatively unintelligent? And what if, simply by believing I stood on the same cognitive footing as my colleagues, I could convince them that I was just as smart — and that I was worth listening to?
According to a growing body of research, spearheaded by psychologist Cameron Anderson, Ph.D., this is exactly what I should have been doing all along.
Anderson’s work was recently featured in an Atlantic article that highlighted the benefits of acting like a “jerk,” particularly in the workplace. The crux of Anderson’s research is that overconfidence can make you more powerful and persuasive.
In one study, for example, conducted with Sebastien Brion, Ph.D., Anderson looked at teams of MBA students who worked together all semester on a particular project. He asked each individual to review a list of historical names and events and identify which ones they recognised. Unbeknownst to the participants, some of the terms were made-up, and the researchers defined “overconfidence” as pretending to be familiar with a lot of bogus terms.
The researchers also asked individual participants to indicate who on their team had influenced the group’s decisions the most. As it turns out, those who were most overconfident were also considered the most influential — and the researchers say that influence is a core component of status and power.
Anderson’s findings are supported by other research on the relative benefits of overconfidence. Researchers at Washington State University found that, while sports pundits earn about 7% more Twitter followers for being perfectly accurate, they earn a whopping 20% more followers for being consistently confident.
On the flip side, researchers at Newcastle University and University of Exeter found that students who underestimated the grades they would receive were viewed as less talented by their classmates.
All these findings suggest that, if you want people to think you’re smart and talented, act like you know what you’re talking about. But personally, I was always afraid that someone would remove the cloak, that I would slip up and all my coworkers would find out I wasn’t as innately skilled as they were. Then, not only would they think I wasn’t intelligent — they would also think I was a fool for trying to pretend I was.
But Anderson’s findings suggest that that probably won’t happen. In one paper, he and his coauthors report that even when participants found out that their partner was just bluffing about their geographic knowledge, they still rated them just as highly as they rated people who really knew about geography. Bottom line: Pretending you’re smarter and more knowledgeable than other people, even if you’re not, is a pretty good way to win their admiration.
So how exactly do you go about convincing the world to do your bidding because you’re the guy or girl who knows your stuff? In one of Anderson’s studies, he found that overconfident individuals subtly conveyed their self-assurance. Instead, they spoke more often; answered more questions; and acted calm and relaxed.
“These big participators were not obnoxious, they didn’t say, ‘I’m really good at this.’ Instead, their behaviour was much more subtle. They simply participated more and exhibited more comfort with the task — even though they were no more competent than anyone else,” Anderson said in a release.
Of course, none of these findings should discourage you from actually getting out there and amassing knowledge or refining your professional skill set. But when you’re faced with a group of colleagues, all of whom are talking boldly over each other, know that you may not be seeing signs of intelligence so much as self-assurance.
And if you aren’t feeling quite confident in your abilities, at least try acting that way. You might even convince yourself.
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