The Cockier You Are, The Worse You Are At Knowing When You're Wrong — And Our Brains Reward Us For It

Too much confidence has long been known to breed poor decision-making and makes us less able to tell when we’re wrong about something. Now, recent research published in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience may help us understand how our brains send us down the path to cockiness.

The researchers examined the brains of just over 300 volunteers via fMRI who earlier watched a video of a person telling a story and were asked to answer a complicated question about what the person had said soon after. Their brains were scanned as they were then asked how confident they felt about their answers — an important aspect of what social researchers call metacognition, or the process of thinking and being aware of our thoughts. The researchers found that greater confidence was linked to greater activation of the brain regions involved in making us feel good when we do something, while less confidence was linked to greater activation of the brain regions tied to uncertainty and unpleasant feelings.

"The more confident people were about their performance, the higher the activation in brain areas such as the striatum, an area often associated with reward processing," lead author Dr Molenberghs said in a statement.

Thumbs up New research suggests that feeling confident triggers the brain areas responsible for making us feel good when we do something, even when we shouldn't, while uncertainty can be downright depressing. Pixabay, Public Domain

In other words, it’s likely our tendency to be overconfident can be partly explained by the fact that our brains reward us when we feel certain, creating a feedback loop where we can’t help but want to be confident all the time. On the flip side, uncertainty not only doesn’t feel exciting, it may actively be downright depressing.

While a little swagger here and there is hardly a bad thing, the researchers, like many before them, found that the more confident someone was, the worse they were at guessing how accurate they were.

Elsewhere, other research has shown a perplexing conundrum: Not only can confidence muck with our ability to steer ourselves straight, but the less knowledge we have about any given subject, the more wrongly confident about that subject we tend to be. And it doesn’t just apply to ourselves either; we’re more likely to overrate the competence of our especially confident friends and bosses too.

So what to do about this glaring blind spot, provided you’re not already too cocky to believe it doesn’t apply to you (it does)? While becoming more knowledgeable about a topic or simply being proven wrong can’t hurt — though definitely not all the time — there’s also some promising research showing that the way we think about intelligence and knowledge can help mitigate overconfidence. People who see intelligence as something that can gradually improve over time rather than as a fixed part of ourselves are less likely to fall into the confidence gap.

Source: Neural correlates of metacognitive ability and of feeling confident: a large-scale fMRI study. Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2016.

Read More:

I Know That I Know Nothing: People Who Think Intelligence Is Unchangeable Susceptible To Perils Of Overconfidence. Read here.

Overconfidence Makes Others Believe In You, Even When They Shouldn't. Read here.

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