A psychological study shows that people can be overconfident in their ability to perform tasks for which they have no formal training
16 March 2022
People can be so confident about their competence even if they lack relevant skills for a task – including landing a commercial aircraft – that they could put themselves and others in serious danger.
“People think, ‘Well, if it really mattered, like in an emergency, I could land the plane’,” says Maryanne Garry at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. “But… that requires skills that most people just don’t have.”
Garry and her colleagues enlisted 780 volunteers for their psychological study. Half of the participants were asked to watch an approximately 4-minute-long silent YouTube video showing two commercial pilots landing a plane in a mountainous area.
The researchers then gave each participant a hypothetical scenario: Imagine you are on a small commuter plane. Due to an emergency, the pilot is incapacitated and you are the only person left to land the plane.
They then asked the participants how confident they would feel – on a percentage scale – about responding to the situation.
They found that people who had watched the video were up to 30 per cent more confident in their ability to land a plane without dying, compared with the confidence ratings of those who hadn’t watched the video. But even people who hadn’t watched the video gave themselves an average confidence score of 29 per cent for their ability to land the plane without dying, says Garry.
Some participants who watched the video were asked prior to doing so how confident they were that they could land the plane as well as any trained pilot. After watching the video, their self-confidence rose: they were up to 38 per cent more confident that they could perform as well as any trained pilot. In general, men were significantly more confident in their abilities than women, she adds.
The results were particularly surprising, the researchers say, given that the respondents in general were convinced that landing a plane requires a great deal of expertise. They ranked the required skill level for landing a plane at an average of 4.4 out of 5, says Garry. Trained pilots learn to land planes after hundreds of hours of training and education in physics, engineering and meteorology, she adds.
Garry says the findings suggest that people “tend to inflate their confidence about certain things” as a result of what she calls a “rapid illusion”, meaning they see images that make them believe they are capable of feats for which they have no skill. The results suggest this applies to a “disturbing proportion of ordinary people”, she says.
While overconfidence has its benefits – for example, giving people a boost that helps them take on life’s challenges – it can also be detrimental when it puts lives in danger, says Kayla Jordan, also at the University of Waikato.
“It’s pretty surprising that people become more confident they could carry out this highly specialised feat – while at the same time telling us they know that landing a plane requires a great deal of expertise,” says Jordan.
Journal reference: Royal Society Open Science, DOI: 10.1098/rsos.211977
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