WASHINGTON — Greater wealth really can lead to inflation of the ego, though sometimes unwittingly. A study by the American Psychological Association found that people who view themselves as members of a higher social class may have exaggerated beliefs that they are more competent than those in lower classes, even if they’re just as (or more) capable.
As a result, it’s that overconfidence, the researchers found, that can be misinterpreted by others in that they then believe the well-to-do individual is more qualified than they really are. Such a mistake can be be costly in important situations such as job interviews.
“Advantages beget advantages. Those who are born in upper-class echelons are likely to remain in the upper class, and high-earning entrepreneurs disproportionately originate from highly educated, well-to-do families,” says lead author Dr. Peter Belmi of the University of Virginia, in a statement. “Our research suggests that social class shapes the attitudes that people hold about their abilities and that, in turn, has important implications for how class hierarchies perpetuate from one generation to the next.”
Dr. Belmi and his team conducted four investigations into the connection between social class and overconfidence, and how that relationship affects others’ perceptions of a person’s competence. The largest such experiment was conducted on more than 150,000 small business owners in Mexico who were applying for loans. The researchers obtained information about each applicants’ income, education level, and perceived standing in society as a part of the application process to measure social class.
The participants were also tested for cognitive ability and were asked to indicate how they performed on these memory tests compared to others. Comparing their actual score with their perceived scores, the researchers found that people with more education and income in a higher perceived social class had an exaggerated belief they would out-perform others.
The researchers’ hypothesis was confirmed in two other similar tests involving 1,400 online participants. In one, participants took part in a trivia game and were polled on their overall performance. Results showed that those in higher classes believe they did better than others, but in reality, they hadn’t.
Finally, the authors recruited 236 undergraduate students to take part in a trivia quiz and then, rate their performance in comparison to others. A week later, the students returned for a mock job interview filmed on video. The authors then recruited 900 people to judge the faux applicants on their competence for the job. Researchers found that the most affluent participants were more likely to display overconfidence, leading the judges to mistakenly believe they were also the most competent and most hirable — when, compared to their lower-class peers, they were not.
“In the middle class, people are socialized to differentiate themselves from others, to express what they think and feel and to confidently express their ideas and opinions, even when they lack accurate knowledge. By contrast, working-class people are socialized to embrace the values of humility, authenticity and knowing your place in the hierarchy,” says Belmi. “These findings challenge the widely held belief that everybody thinks they are better than the average. Our results suggest that this type of thinking might be more prevalent among the middle and upper classes.”
The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.