Look at this graph. I have to say, when I first saw it, it completely blew my mind. OK, I had read about these things before, but the elegance and conciseness of the diagram is amazing!

Leslie - Confidence Optimism

There are 4 key elements worth noting: a) the way we see the future is NOT realistic – on average, we assume things will pan out better than they will  b) people who see reality as it is, are classified as clinically depressed!  c) on average, men’s perception of the future is substantially more optimistic than that of women;  d) (some) leaders are even more extreme cases – they are borderline ‘delusional’!

a) This is one of the 3 key ‘positive illusions’ *. On average, we tend to think that things are likely to improve in the future. It seems that there is an evolutionary explanation behind this. If you are (slightly over-) confident, you try harder and you take chances because you believe you are going to be successful – it seems that ‘optimists’ out-reproduced ‘realists’ in the past.

b) It may be that the Eeyores of this world are actually the realists! But, you may say, now that we know this, aren’t we going to become depressed as well? Fortunately, the answer is ‘No’. It seems that the ‘rose-tinted’ spectacles with which we gaze at the future are riveted in place and cannot be removed; think of the Muller – Lyer optical illusion: does the fact that you know the lines are of equal length help you see them differently?

c) Study after study has shown that men tend to take greater risks than women – clearly, overconfidence has a lot to do with it. That is why men are over-represented in extreme sports and in high-risk jobs (e.g. stockbrokers). This also explains why women (on average) tend to prefer the security that state jobs offer. (It does NOT explain why they still get less money than men for the same work…) Again, Evolutionary Psychology seems to provide a good account of why this should be so. According to R. Baumeister, historically, men have been under greater selection pressures than women. To put it another way, compared to women, fewer men were proportionally a lot more reproductively successful. So, to succeed, a man had to take greater risks and to have an (often unjustified) faith in himself (Baumeister 2010 – p. )

d) As Leslie points out (2011 – p. 222) leaders seem to possess this trait to an even higher degree. This makes sense of course; presumably a leader has the self-confidence to put himself through the grueling process which is the political ‘cursus’ (‘climbing the greasy pole’) in the first place and, to become a leader, they have to have some successes under their belt, which may also go to their head. This could potentially be dangerous; it seems that confidence is like wine; in moderation it can be good, but in excess it can lead to disaster – and in the case of leaders, they may drag whole nations along (see the extreme end of the graph…)

* The other two are that we think we have more control over reality than we actually do, and that (of course) we are ‘better than average’ in just about everything! 🙂 (Sarot 2012).