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How Overconfidence Among the Upper Classes Is Hampering Social Mobility

New research finds that high self-regard can come across as competence to potential employers.
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Studies strongly suggest that class differences in how kids are socialized create a barrier to upward mobility.

America likes to think of itself as the land of opportunity—but these days, there's an excellent chance you'll be stuck in the social class you were born into for the rest of your life. Precisely why it's so hard to make that leap in status is a complicated question, but new research offers an intriguing clue.

A new study finds that people who occupy a higher place in the socio-economic hierarchy often believe, without evidence, that they are more capable than their lower-class counterparts. Crucially, this overconfidence can be misinterpreted by prospective employers to indicate higher competence, giving middle- and upper-class people a significant advantage in terms of hiring and, presumably, promotion.

"In the middle class, people are socialized to differentiate themselves from others, to express what they think and feel, and to confidently express their ideas and opinions, even when they lack accurate knowledge," lead author Peter Belmi of the University of Virginia said in announcing the findings.

"By contrast, working-class people are socialized to embrace the values of humility, authenticity, and knowing your place in the hierarchy," Belmi said. In a society that rewards brash go-getters, humility can be a real disadvantage.

The new research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, describes four studies featuring a total of 152,661 people. One featured 1,000 people recruited on Amazon's Mechanical Turk website; researchers determined participants' social class based on factors including household income and educational attainment. In a first round, subjects completed surveys designed to measure their desire for prestige, advancement, and high social rank.

A few days later, they were invited to play a trivia game, in which they were instructed to answer 15 questions in five seconds or less. The instructions emphasized that this was a fun game that was "NOT diagnostic of your intellectual ability."

After completing the game, each participant was asked to estimate (on a one-to-100 scale) how well they had done compared to the other players. "We found that individuals with relatively high social class were more overconfident compared with their lower-class counterparts," the researchers report.

This finding replicated the results of two other studies, including one conducted in Mexico, suggesting that the phenomenon is not limited to the United States. The studies also revealed that the overconfident, higher-social-status players "had a stronger desire for social rank."

"Members of advantaged groups tend to enjoy a host of [psychological] benefits from being at the top," the researchers write. They therefore "may desire positions of high social rank to maintain their elevated position and advantages." In contrast, people of lower social rank are more likely to be "guided by interdependent and communal norms," which emphasize fitting in rather than standing out.

The practical consequences of these divergent mindsets were made clear in a final study, which featured 237 students attending a university in the southern U.S. After completing all the exercises described above, they returned to the lab a week later for a "mock hiring interview."

Participants were asked to imagine they were applying for a prestigious managerial position at a telecommunications company, in which they would oversee the marketing of a new smartphone. As part of the process, they participated in a mock press conference, where they were asked to defend the product and the company before an audience of skeptical reporters.

Each subject was video-recorded making his or her statement. Their presentations were then judged by independent raters, who offered their impressions of the participants' warmth and confidence, and indicated how likely they would be to offer them the job.

"Individuals with relatively high social class were more overconfident, which in turn was associated with being perceived as more competent, and ultimately more hireable in the eyes of independent observers," the researchers report. This finding provides evidence of "an important downstream consequence of the class and overconfidence link, and helps illuminate an additional mechanism on how class hierarchies may perpetuate."

The results strongly suggest that class differences in how kids are socialized create a barrier to upward mobility. The researchers also cast their findings as a cautionary tale for employers, who might be making hiring or promotion decisions based on misconceptions of ability. (The players of lower social rank did just as well as those of higher rank on the trivia quiz.)

"Advantages beget advantages," Belmi and his colleagues conclude. High-income parents don't need to forge evidence that their child is a star on the crew team to help them get ahead. Simply modeling the importance of standing out from the crowd could do the trick.