The Benefits of Nonverbal Overconfidence

The way you act and speak affects whether people want to collaborate with you.

Posted Jun 10, 2019

Aila Images/Shutterstock
Source: Aila Images/Shutterstock

There are many ways to express your level of confidence in something. Often, you do it verbally: You talk specifically about how well or poorly you did on something. However, you also have nonverbal ways to communicate: Confident people tend to stand more upright and expansively than less confident people. Confident people also speak more clearly and loudly than less confident people. And they tend to act more quickly and with less hesitation than less confident people.

In the United States, we tend to like confident people. We trust them and believe that we should collaborate with them or accept their opinions. What happens, though, when that confidence is misplaced? That is, what happens when a person is confident, but really shouldn’t be?

This issue was explored in a paper in the March 2019 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Elizabeth Tenney, Nathan Meikle, David Hunsaker, Don Moore, and Cameron Anderson.

They explored situations in which a person expresses confidence either verbally or nonverbally. People had a chance to express how much they want to collaborate with this person. After this expression of confidence, information about the person’s performance was presented. Then, people were given another chance to express how much they wanted to collaborate with the person.

In the first set of studies, participants look at a series of faces and guess the emotion on the face. Then, they are told they will play the game again with a collaborator. If the two of them do well enough, they will have a chance to win $50 in a drawing. They are given two potential candidates to choose from. Across studies, the candidates are either men or women. The results are somewhat stronger for male candidates than for female candidates, but the pattern of results is similar.

In the verbal confidence condition, participants see information from potential collaborators, who display their confidence by texting about their performance in the task. The high confidence person (an actor) texts that they did well. The low confidence person (a different actor) texts that they didn’t do so well. Participants see texts from both high and low confidence characters. The texts are used so that there won’t be any nonverbal information participants can use in their judgment.

Both before and after finding out how well the people actually did on the practice task, participants rate how desirable it would be to work with each candidate, and they select the candidate they want to work with. After that first rating, participants find out that each person did poorly on the practice task.

In the verbal conditions of the studies, participants find the high-confidence person more desirable than the low-confidence person, and then select the high-confidence person to work with. This result is not surprising, because people generally prefer people with high confidence over people with low confidence. After finding out that both people did poorly, though, the pattern shifts, and people find the low-confidence person more desirable and are more likely to choose this person to work with.

In the nonverbal confidence condition, participants see videos of the participant talking about themselves and where they come from. So, they are not talking specifically about the task itself. Participants saw actors playing the roles of high-confidence and low-confidence people. The particular actors were counterbalanced across participants so that the results are not due to the particular actor playing the role of the high- or low-confidence character. The high-confidence person talks in a loud clear voice looking directly at the interviewers. The low-confidence person talks slowly and hesitatingly and does not make eye contact.

The pattern of results for the nonverbal conditions is different than for the verbal conditions. In this case, participants find the high-confidence person to be desirable to work with—even after finding out that this person performed poorly in the task. They rate the high-confidence person as more desirable than the low-confidence person, and more participants selected the high-confidence person than the low-confidence person both before and after finding out how well they did on the practice task.  

The researchers suggest that the high-confidence person is still preferred because their nonverbal confidence is not tied directly to a statement of their performance. As a result, participants can assume they are confident people in general rather than that their confidence is being driven by how well they did on the practice task.

In subsequent studies, they provide evidence for this proposal by having participants view potential candidates who act with high confidence while performing the practice test or who act with low confidence while performing the practice test. In this case, participants gravitate toward the low-confidence individual when finding out that both candidates performed poorly.

This set of findings suggests that, consistent with a lot of other research, when you display confidence, people want to work with you. That said, verbal or nonverbal overconfidence that is not warranted by your performance can hurt you. If people recognize that you are overconfident, they may avoid working with you. However, nonverbal displays of confidence may benefit you, because they are not always attached directly to statements of your performance. They just display your general level of confidence in acting in the world.

You might want to pay attention to the way you come across to other people. Work on standing straight and making eye contact. Make an effort to speak loudly and clearly and to put force behind your words. Often, you’ll find you get the benefit of the doubt from other people.

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Tenney, E.R., Meikle, N.L., Hunsaker, D., Moore, D.A., & Anderson, C. (2019). Is overconfidence a social liability? The effect of verbal versus nonverbal expressions of confidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116(3), 396-415.