In an episode of the TV series 30 Rock, star Tina Fey asks a child who had accompanied her father to work among a bunch of high-class business types what she’d learned that day.
Without hesitating, the girl says, “People who talk the most in meetings often know the least."
Out of the mouths of tweens — and now, social scientists.
A recent study shows that people who see themselves as being in a higher social class tend to have an exaggerated belief that they are more capable than their equally skilled lower-class colleagues.
This kind of overconfidence, the study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology says, can be misinterpreted by others as proof of greater competence in situations such as job interviews.
“People who are overconfident rise through the hierarchy," the study’s author, University of Virginia management professor Peter Belmi, said. “And it takes a long time for people to figure out somebody might not be as competent as they seem.”
Belmi, an expert in organizational behavior and class, added that “we all want to believe our system rewards competence.” Sadly, he said, that’s not always the case.
Gosh, some people might be thinking. Does that mean that my boss may not always know what he or she is talking about? What a shocker!
Try to hold off on the snark, Belmi would advise.
He based his findings on four investigations involving more than 150,000 people in the United States and Mexico.
Essentially, he found that people with more education, more income, and a higher perceived social class believed that they would perform better on various assigned tasks compared with their lower-class counterparts. They did not.
In one especially telling finding, students from families with household incomes above $300,000 were given tests to complete, then asked how they thought they did. Overall, they said they had performed at the 60th percentile, when in fact they were at the 40th, Belmi said.
Then, students from families with household incomes around $40,000 took the same tests. They placed themselves in the 47th percentile. However, Belmi said, they were at the 55th.
A week afterward, the students from higher social classes were video recorded in a lab during a mock hiring interview. More than 900 judges, recruited online, watched the videos and rated the applicants’ competence as they saw it.
The result that Belmi found: “Individuals with relatively high social class were more overconfident. That in turn was associated with being perceived as more competent and ultimately more hirable, even though on average they were no better at the tests than their lower-class counterparts.”
So, what’s going on here?
People from higher classes, Belmi said, are often told growing up that “they’re God’s gift to humanity.” As such, they’re encouraged to confidently express what they think and feel, even when they lack accurate knowledge, Belmi said.
Working- and lower-social-class people, on the other hand, are raised to not think too highly of themselves and to know their place, he added. While middle- and upper-class people are taught to focus on themselves, lower-social-class folks are taught to be selfless and prioritize their family or social group.
“That was how we were brought up,” said Bryant Peters, 49, a contractor from Point Breeze and the son of a firefighter and a homemaker. “We were raised Irish Roman Catholic. Being humble was a big part of our lives.”
The difference between overconfident elites and unpresuming workers may be fueling current unrest in America, said Temple University sociologist Matt Wray.
Working-class resentment toward elites could be based on the anger and disillusionment working-class people feel when they realize their bosses and supervisors have essentially fooled everybody, he said.
“They’ve duped us into believing that they deserve their higher status and better pay because they have better skills,” Wray said, “when in fact they don’t. They just act like they do.”
Often, Belmi said, overconfident upper-class people attain status by being the first to speak in social groups, using a factual voice tone no matter what they’re saying, and appearing calm — all cues that make them seem smarter than they are.
“There certainly are some useless people who look good in a suit, and that carries them through,” said Mike Scotese, owner of the Gray Lodge Pub in Mayfair. “And you can’t run a restaurant without knowing overconfident people.”
But, he added, such outward arrogance doesn’t help everyone. “You can get only so far on bluster,” Scotese, 53, said. “Then you end up failing.”
Throughout their lives, wealthy people have fewer real challenges than less well-off folks, and that makes them think they’re pretty adept at handling life’s problems, noted David Elesh, emeritus sociology professor at Temple University.