Crank up the volume?

In their 2010 book, The Invisible Gorillawhich I can highly recommend, one of the topics Chris Chabris and Dan Simons explore is the illusion of self-confidence.

This phenomenon describes how we on the one hand have the tendency to rate our competences higher than those of people around us (just think of traffic situations… what a bunch of numpties! I seem to be the only person round here who can drive! Or maybe not?) but on the other how we will often perceive self-confidence as an indicator of  a person’s competence, knowledge and abilities.

These tendencies lead to what Chabris and Simons refer to as the illusion of self-confidence.

Self-confidence is not necessarily proportionally in-step with these qualities in a person. Chabris and Simons demonstrated this by studies they did of competitive chess players. Often in our professional lives, we lack an objective scale of comparison in regards to how well we perform a task compared to others. Chess players, however, have a very precise means of measuring their skills, which is a numerical ranking system based upon a mathematical calculation of the number of victories, draws or defeats. This calculation also takes into account the ranking of the opponent, awarding more points for a victory against a stronger opponent and accordingly less in the instance that the opponents was of a lower ranking.

The average ranking of the players of the US Chess Federation in 1998 was 1337 points. 2200 points earns you the title of Grandmaster – of which there are relatively few and far between.

In interviews that the two researchers conducted at a number of chess tournaments,

  • 21% of interviewees felt that their ranking corresponded with their abilities,
  • 4% reckoned they were ranked to highly, and
  • a whopping 75% felt they were ranked too low by an average of 99 points. This is a considerable margin, in view of the average ranking of 1337 and the step up to a Grandmaster at 2200 points 100 points constitutes a considerable step up.

When Chabris and Simons looked closer, it transpired that the players who felt most under-rated were actually at the lower end of the range of abilities, whilst stronger players saw the mismatch as less pronounced. So the conclusion from that study was that the stronger players tended to rate themselves slightly higher, unlike weaker players, who over-estimated their abilities by a considerable margin. Put differently, the level of self-confidence and the ability to objectively asses ones level of competence are proportionally inverted. Or to express the correlation in a more positive fashion: a more competent person is better equipped to objectively assess their skill levels.

What is the consequence of all this for us and why am I rattling on about chess?

Well, I reckon we have all encountered situations in which the dominant person in a work team is the person who is most assertive, self-confident and vocal. However, as Chabris’ and Simon’s work clearly demonstrates, it is perfectly possible – and probably even likely – that that person is not most competent or experienced in the group, but merely the most self-confident. And that the group is falling prey to the illusion of self-confidence. The net result being that the overall level of competence in a team is watered down to the smallest common denominator.

Have you ever felt intimidated or cowed by a very pushy, self-assertive member of a team? Well, maybe remembering this study will encourage you to stand up to them…

Jacob Dunn at the University of Cambridge and colleagues recently concluded a study where they compared howlers monkeys’ hyoid bones. These bones, found in the neck, are enlarged in male howler monkeys to hold a sound-amplifying air sac.

They found that species with more males per group tended to have smaller hyoid bones and bigger testicles. But there was also a direct relationship between large hyoids and small testicles. Alternatively, big voiced-males might be able to fend off other males, reducing competition for their sperm, and so not need large testes. “I suspect that there might well be an element of both,” says Dunn.

So, the conclusion was that the louder howler monkeys had smaller testes. And vice versa.

Hmmm. That is food for thought… Did anyone say social media? 😉

So remember, that person standing up there on the soap box expounding upon merits of the newest, biggest and best thing since sliced bread or about the best way to resolve a situation may actually not be as knowledgeable or competent as he seems… and – if howler monkeys are anything to go by – may well be testacularly under-endowed!

Just saying’…