How overconfidence helps win elections

The United States has passed 8 million Covid-19 cases, but President Trump still continues to express confidence in the country’s ability to recover.

14-10-2020 | 9:41

His recent first-hand experience with the virus seems to have even boosted his optimistic outlook, flouting pandemic protocols and returning to public events and rallies immediately following his return from hospital. Trump’s optimism stands in sharp contrast to the recommendations of scientists and healthcare professionals, who emphasize the importance of tight restrictions on public gatherings and social contact.

But Trump’s brash confidence in the face of a global pandemic should come as no surprise. Even prior to the 2016 election that brought him to power, he had displayed himself as an overconfident egoist with little regard for truth or the well-being of others. Why then didn’t Trump’s overconfidence scare off voters back in 2016? And why does it still seem to win him support in the lead up to the coming elections?

New research by Richard Ronay, Janneke Oostrom, Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock, Samuel Mayoral, and Hannes Rusch shows that overconfidence actually gives presidential candidates an advantage in elections. The advantage follows from the difficulties most people experience when trying to distinguish true confidence from overconfidence. It turns out that both confidence – which signals underlying competence – and overconfidence – which signals a falsely inflated sense of competence – give rise to the same behaviours (e.g., strong opinions and a self-assured appearance). This of course makes it extremely difficult to assess underlying competence levels from behavioural displays of (over)confidence. And the upshot of all this is that people put their faith in those candidates who promise them the world.

For instance, in one study at an assessment company, the researchers measured the actual overconfidence of leadership candidates, as well as consultants’ perceptions of candidates’ overconfidence levels. When the consultants believed the candidate to be overconfident, the candidate was not recommended for the role. However, consultants’ perceptions of overconfidence showed almost no correspondence with the candidates’ actual overconfidence levels. And as expected, the candidates’ actual overconfidence scores predicted them being selected for a leadership role.

The researchers also examined the effects of overconfidence in the 2016 presidential election. They sampled hundreds of US voters and asked them to indicate how likely they would be to vote for each of the candidates (Clinton, Sanders, Trump, and Cruz). They also asked them to rate the candidates’ confidence and competence. Results showed that voters were swayed by candidates’ confidence, independent of how competent the candidates seemed to be. Based on a computer simulation that modeled the longer-term consequences of these voter preferences, the researchers observed that the overconfidence of elected presidents is likely to skyrocket, while their competence will show a steady decline across time.

Now is perhaps a prudent moment for organizations and nations to consider what kind of leaders they really want. When faced with the seductive allure of overconfidence, we might all do better when we at least consider the virtues of humility. 

Read the full paper, “Playing the trump card: Why we select overconfident leaders and why it matters

Janneke Oostrom is an Associate Professor of HRM and Organizational Behaviour at the department of Management and Organization at VU Amsterdam.

Janneke Oostrom VU Amsterdam