Character  &  Context

The Attractiveness of Confidence

Image of a couple leaning away from each other but holding onto each others arms to keep standing

By: Sean Murphy

Some of the most common advice given to singles looking to attract a partner is to ‘just be confident.’ Folk wisdom suggests that confidence is highly attractive to potential partners, and research has confirmed that men and women rate confidence as a very attractive trait in a potential partner (Buunk, Dijkstra, Fetchenhauer, & Kenrick, 2002).

What makes confidence so attractive? One reason is that a lot of the things we want in a partner are difficult to observe directly, especially on first meeting - this includes traits like competence, drive, social status, and kindness. Because we trust that people know themselves well, and assume that their confidence (or lack thereof) reflects their actual value as a partner.

Given the benefits of confidence, my colleagues and I wondered whether people could gain a romantic edge by being overconfident (Murphy et al., 2015). We thought that overconfident people, who have a more positive view of themselves than is objectively warranted, might act in ways that mimic the signs of genuine confidence. We hypothesized that potential romantic targets would perceive overconfident individuals as more genuinely confident, and consequently rate them more favorably as a romantic partner.

To test this idea, we conducted four studies in which we measured participants’ overconfidence in a variety of ways. In one test, we examined their tendency to claim familiarity with information that did not exist (e.g. ‘ultra-lipids’ and ‘plates of parallax’; Paulhus, Harms, Bruce & Lysy, 2003). In others, we compared their self-assessment on a variety of intellectual tasks with their actual performance, forming an index of overconfidence from the difference between how well people thought they performed and how they actually performed.

In Study 1, after participants completed an overconfidence task we had them write dating profiles. A separate group of opposite-sex participants then read those dating profiles and rated the authors on a number of positive qualities.

We found that participants who scored high on our tests of overconfidence were perceived as more confident in their dating profiles. Confidence, in turn, was a strong predictor of overall romantic attractiveness. Nevertheless, overconfident individuals were not seen as more attractive. This finding suggested to us that overconfidence might simultaneously be having a negative impact on desirability through some means we weren’t measuring. Our first thought was that individuals who are overconfident might often also often come across as arrogant, and that this might have undercut the beneficial effects of confidence.

When we ran a second study, asking participants to also rate dating profiles for arrogance, we found this was indeed happening. Overconfident participants were again perceived as more confident, but were also judged by raters to be more arrogant. Confidence and arrogance counteracted each other, with the overall effect that overconfident people were, on average, no better (or worse) off romantically for their inflated self-views.

These findings failed to support our initial hypothesis of a benefit of overconfidence in romantic attraction. However, the increase in both confidence and arrogance suggested a different potential benefit; overconfidence might be helpful when there is competition for partners. Some romantic encounters involve only evaluations of attractiveness, such as chatting to someone you meet in a bookstore. Others, however, include an element of competition for access to potential romantic partners - like trying to gain the attention of an attractive person in a nightclub. Our findings suggested that overconfident individuals might do better in these competitive environments. We thought that arrogance and confidence might make overconfident people seem difficult and unpleasant competitors, thus deterring others from trying to compete with them.

To test this possibility, in our third study people were asked to imagine they had shown up to a singles mixer, and were particularly interested in one member of the opposite sex - but that the author of the profile they were reading was already sitting at a table with that person. We then asked how willing they would be to sit at the same table with the profile writer and attempt to compete for the attention of their preferred individual, rather than giving up and meeting someone new at a different table. We found that people were less willing to compete with overconfident profile writers. These data suggest that although potential partners find arrogance unattractive, arrogance combined successfully with confidence to drive away competitors.

A fourth study replicated this deterrence effect when money was on the line. Participants first wrote their own dating profile, and were then given the opportunity to compete with other profile writers if they thought their profile would be more attractive to the opposite sex. If they chose not to compete, they would get a set amount of money, but if they competed they would double their money if their profile was found more attractive, but would get nothing otherwise. Even with these incentives, participants were less willing to compete against overconfident profile writers, while participants who were overconfident themselves were more likely to choose to compete across the board.

To get an idea of how the effects of overconfidence on competition and attraction might combine to determine romantic success, we conducted a simulation study using agent-based modelling. Using the effects from our empirical studies, we repeatedly simulated scenarios where a varying number of competitors attempted to deter each other from competing, before those who remained tried to attract the target. Our simulations showed that as levels of competition increased, the negative effects of arrogance on overall romantic success disappeared, while the positive effects of confidence became stronger. These findings suggest that overconfidence can be beneficial when trying to attract a partner in a highly competitive environment, as the combination of confidence and arrogance increases total romantic success by deterring potential competitors.

A question that remains open for us, however, is what separates participants who portrayed confidence without arrogance from those who portrayed both. Although the combination of the two is beneficial in competitive environments, portraying confidence without arrogance would reap most of the competitive benefits while still getting a boost to romantic desirability. One possibility is that some participants simply lack the social skills to come across as confident but not arrogant. Another possibility is that there is a cognitive cost to minimizing arrogance while appearing confident, and some people, particularly the competitively minded, may choose not to pay that cost.

Regardless, our research suggests that being a bit overconfident may not be such a bad thing – especially if you can avoid coming across as arrogant.

Sean Murphy is a 4th year Ph.D. student in Psychological Science at the University of Queensland School of Psychology.  His research examines the social outcomes of individual differences like social intelligence and overconfidence. You can find out more about Sean and his research here: www.seancmurphy.com and contact him at seanchrismurphy@gmail.com.

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