Have you ever seen or heard of someone doing a very difficult task and think “that doesn’t seem so hard, I bet I could do that too?” A study published in Royal Society Open Science tests how far this phenomenon of overconfidence can be stretched by asking people if they believe they could land a plane in an emergency after watching a video of a pilot landing a plane.
Overconfidence is an interesting phenomenon in which a person’s faith in their own abilities or knowledge exceeds their actual skillsets. This can include believing that they know things they do not, thinking they have more desirable traits than they actually do, and estimating that they know more than the average person.
Overconfidence is thought to be related to a myriad of factors, including personality traits, insight levels, intelligence, and gender. Some literature suggests that overconfidence can even be beneficial to individuals. It is reasonable to assume that overconfidence generally has its limits, and this research seeks to explore where that boundary may lie.
Kayla Jordan and colleagues utilized 780 participants over 2 experiments to serve as their sample. All participants were recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. For both experiments, participants were assigned into either a video or a no video group. Participants were asked to imagine that they were on a small plane and the pilot was incapacitated, leaving them as the only person left to land the plane.
Participants who were assigned to the video group watched a clip of a pilot landing a plane, though the video had no instructional merit and the actions the pilot took to do so were obscured by the camera angle, while participants in the no video group skipped straight to the questionnaire.
Participants all answered on a scale of 0-100 how confident they felt that they could land the plane without dying and how confident they felt that they could land the plane as well as a pilot could. In experiment 1, those questions were asked in that order to all participants, while in experiment 2 the order was counterbalanced.
Participants in both studies were much more confident overall that they could land the plane without dying than they were about landing it as well as a pilot, and men were more confident about their ability to land a plane in all conditions than women were. Results showed participants who had watched the video of a pilot landing a plane were significantly more confident that they could land the plane without dying.
“We found evidence that simply watching one non-instructional demonstration of an expert performing a highly complex skill leads people to become more confident in their ability to perform that skill. More specifically, when people watched a trivially informative video of a pilot landing a plane, it inflated their confidence that they themselves could land a plane,” the researchers wrote.
Additionally, the second experiment showed that the order the questions were asked had a significant effect such that when the ‘without dying’ question was asked first, it boosted video-watchers confidence for both questions, but when the ‘as well as a pilot’ question was first, confidence was not inflated on either question.
This study took interesting steps into better understanding overconfidence and what factors could potentially affect it. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that this study cannot address which mechanisms lead to the overconfidence to occur or which characteristics of the video induced the overconfidence. Additionally, this study utilized a predominantly female sample and did not report on race or ethnicity, which could potentially be confounding variables.
“Our hope is that future research will adopt and refine our method to explore and unearth its underlying mechanisms,” the researchers concluded.
The study, “Trivially informative semantic context inflates people’s confidence they can perform a highly complex skill“, was authored by