We love stories about blind faith—Sylvester Stalone turning down deals until someone let him play Rocky, J.K. Rowling going from a single parent on public assistance to the creative force behind a billion-dollar multimedia empire. People who show extreme, even irrational self-confidence in the face of long odds show us that some degree of that might be helpful.
Except when it isn't. It's often a really bad idea to think you’re more capable than you are: A boxer finds himself fighting an opponent way out of his league; someone new joins the team at work and wants to be given big assignments before they’ve proved themselves.
In the process of studying overconfidence in the past few decades, researchers have discovered just how widespread it is. But for a tendency that appears so ingrained, science has yet to fully untangle the question of whether—and in which circumstances—overconfidence helps or hurts us. Here’s why.
First, it helps to define "overconfidence," which simply means having more faith in yourself or your abilities than is warranted by objective evidence. In studies, most people have been found to think they're better than average, and sometimes we evaluate ourselves more favorably than those who know us do, overestimating our own abilities and positive traits. Overconfidence happens across cultures, and it shows up more in situations when it's difficult to hold someone accountable. We tend to succumb to it more often than not, unless we’re in a social settings where overconfidence would make us look bad.
As you might expect with something this ubiquitous, though, it does have its adaptive value. Overconfidence goes hand in hand with greater mental health, at least in the short term; it’s not always so good for long-term self-esteem or well-being. These two factors (its ubiquity and near-term benefits) hint why overconfidence is such a baseline tendency in most people: Neuroscientists have found evidence that it actually saves us mental energy while we’re in the heat of decision-making; we don’t have to think and weigh all the evidence before acting.
There’s a part of the brain—the orbitofrontal cortex—that does something unexpected when we're feeling overconfident. This region is involved in things like piecing together all the information we need to make decisions and in regulating our emotions. Both are abilities you might think would play a role in overconfidence—but actually don't. Instead, the orbitofrontal cortex becomes less active when we're overconfident, which suggests that overconfident requires little in the way of deep thinking or emotion regulation.
In other words, overconfidence is probably the default. When we don’t put in effort to change our perspective, we tend to be overconfident, which, on the flip side, saves us mental energy for the work ahead. Overconfidence can therefore make us more efficient decision-makers; it just might not make us better ones.
Neuroscience also now suggests a reason why overconfidence can have such different faces, sometimes giving us that Hollywood hope and sometimes leading us to set up camp in the middle of a forest fire.
When researchers at UT Austin examined brain scans during periods when subjects felt overconfident, they discovered two recognizably different types of overconfidence. One was in reaction to a threat to one's self-esteem. The other was when subjects were simply experiencing the natural human tendency toward overconfidence while their self-esteem wasn’t being threatened.
Let’s call these two kinds varieties "defensive" and "optimistic" overconfidence. Different brain patterns were involved depending on whether or not overconfidence was a defensive reaction to a threat to self-esteem; when overconfidence was defensive, there was more activity in the orbitofrontal cortex activity (the region described above), which was also seen to interact with a different network of other brain regions.
That's an important sign. When different brain patterns are involved, it hints that there may be different causes and consequences for overconfidence. For instance, it may be that when overconfidence steers us awry, our brains are really grappling with a different type of experience than when it doesn’t.
So when you catch yourself becoming overconfident (or rather, since that’s hard to do, catch somebody else), ask yourself whether it’s coming from a place of defensiveness: Is a wounded ego lurking behind a show of certainty or bravado? Or is it instead simply premised on an optimistic view of the future? Answering that can help give you some useful perspective on the situation so you can make a more informed decision—and override your overconfident default setting.
What seems clear, at any rate, is that the brain is not behaving the same way in those two situations. And so far, there’s no real scientific way to know whether one or the other leads to more positive outcomes. But simply tuning into the situation may help you make a more deliberate choice and thereby sidestep overconfidence, regardless of its source. Otherwise, for my money, I’d rather base an overconfident decision on sheer optimism than on wounded self-esteem. When decisions get personal, they often go badly.