Is she really going out with him?

12 Feb 2016

If the surviving photos are to be believed, when I was fourteen years old I was painful to behold – about a dozen wispy hairs on my upper lip, at least that many pimples on my forehead, no discernible chin line but a full metal jacket on my teeth, and hair past my shoulders.
Despite these cruel tricks played on me by the vicissitudes of adolescence, I was of the unshakeable belief that I was God’s gift to 14-year-old girls. I had complete confidence when I approached any of the girls in my class, most of whom were a full head taller than me at the time. And, perhaps most remarkably of all, some of them proved to be susceptible to my charms.

Countless conversations in coffee shops, bars, and among befuddled parents are testimony to the fact that my experience was not an isolated incident. So along with my PhD student Sean Murphy and our colleagues, we set out to understand how this happens – how do boys get the girl when they have no business even asking?

We began by giving people a test of overconfidence that assesses over-claiming, or claiming to know things that you really don’t. The scale tests over-claiming by asking people to identify ideas they are familiar with, and scattered among real information are bogus items that don’t really exist. For example, people who claim to know what cholarine is are, by definition, overconfident in their knowledge.

We then asked these people to write a dating profile to try to attract members of their preferred sex, and had members of that sex rate the profiles for confidence and desirability. Sure enough, individuals who over-claimed wrote more confident profiles, but to our surprise they were not perceived as more desirable. When we investigated this more thoroughly we found that overconfident people were in fact more attractive by virtue of their confidence, but they also were less attractive by virtue of their arrogance.

At first we were stymied by this finding, but then we remembered that in the animal kingdom it is not uncommon for a trait (such as overconfidence) to be effective in the mating game not because it is attractive to members of the opposite sex, but because it is useful in competition with members of the same sex. It seemed possible that perhaps overconfidence is just such a trait, and so we set up dating competitions. People were told that they would be paid a bonus if their dating profile was chosen by a target individual, but that this person was choosing between them and someone else and they would get nothing if they weren’t chosen. Their alternative was to go for a smaller but guaranteed bonus by selecting a less desirable partner, for whom there was no competition.

Two findings emerged from this experiment: 1) overconfident people were more likely to choose to compete for the attractive partner, and 2) people were less likely to choose to compete with overconfident people. When we ran computer simulations of these results to examine the effects of overconfidence with different numbers of competitors, we found that overconfidence is essentially neutral when guys are trying to get the girl in the absence of competition; it neither helps them nor hurts them in their romantic endeavours. But as soon as there are more guys than girls in the room, overconfidence becomes an asset by driving away the competition. 

So what have we learned? Women may not be enamoured with overconfident men, but they clearly feel that overconfident men are better than no men at all – which is the very alternative that such men are adept at creating. 

So if there’s competition for your intended Valentine this year, now is the time to amp up your confidence!

- Professor Bill von Hippel, School of Psychology