Is it better to know your stuff, or act like you do? If you are in the business of convincing other people, whether as a consultant, salesperson, team member, or almost any other position that requires others to believe you, it pays to be confident. Don Moore from Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Behavioral Decision Research has published new research showing that confidence even trumps past accuracy in earning the trust of others.
In Moore’s experiment, volunteers were given cash for correctly guessing the weight of people from their photographs. In each of the eight rounds of the study, the guessers bought advice from one of four other volunteers. The guessers could see in advance how confident each of these advisers was, but not which weights they had opted for.
From the start, the more confident advisers found more buyers for their advice, and this caused the advisers to give answers that were more and more precise as the game progressed. This escalation in precision disappeared when guessers simply had to choose whether or not to buy the advice of a single adviser. In the later rounds, guessers tended to avoid advisers who had been wrong previously, but this effect was more than outweighed by the bias towards confidence. [From New Scientist - Humans prefer cockiness to expertise by Peter Aldhous.]
This may not be a huge surprise, since people naturally associate confidence with expertise. This strategy breaks down, though, when someone sounds very confident without actually being right. It also means that simplistic explanations of complex topics like climate change and future economic behavior may find more believers than the nuanced opinion of a true expert who accurately describes multiple possible outcomes.
Does that mean we should all become obnoxiously confident in our own opinions, and never admit that other views might have merit? Of course not. But what it does mean is that if we want to close sales, get projects approved, and achieve other objectives requiring persuasion, we need to communicate our confidence to others.
I’m not suggesting that we develop false bravado to manipulate others. Rather, we should use time-honored strategies to develop our confidence. Salespeople should truly believe in their product. Every persuader should achieve mastery of the facts. Confidence will flow naturally from these. And, of course, we should resist the tendency to waffle or spend too much time discussing alternative possibilities – this will leave the audience confused and doubtful.
For an example of over-the-top confidence, look at Mad Money’s Jim Cramer (watch the first few seconds of the video for an idea of his typical presentation style). Like any financial advisor, he has a mixed record in his forecasts of markets and individual stocks. Nevertheless, he has a huge following. A big key to his success in building an audience is his confidence and appearance of expertise. When a phone call comes in with a question about a relatively obscure company, Cramer reels off the ticker symbol, gives a quick synopsis of what the company does and why he likes or doesn’t like it, and gives a firm buy or sell recommendation (complete with sound effects and flashing lights). No waffling, no neutral “hold” recommendations, just a quick demonstration of deep knowledge and a firm opinion. That’s confidence, and it works for Cramer.