Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What's So Wrong with Arrogance?

I have always had a negative gut reaction to arrogant/overconfident people. In popular culture, however, arrogance is played up as a cornerstone of success and downright entrepreneurial chutzpah, exemplified by icons such as Zuck in The Social Network, Gordon Gekko in Wall Street or Donald Trump in the avalanche of The Apprentice "reality" shows.

But I felt vindicated when in the last issue of Harvard Business Review I encountered a very interesting research entitled "Experts Are More Persuasive When They Are Less Certain" by Associate Professor Zakary Tormala of Stanford GSB. According to this research which tallied ratings of a fictitious restaurant based on a variety of professional and amateur reviews, my gut reaction to arrogance has been spot on with majority of folks:

[We] asked subjects what they’d pay for a meal at our fictitious restaurant, Bianco’s. People who’d read the tentative professional review were willing to pay 56% more than people who’d read the highly certain professional review. But uncertainty had almost the exact opposite effect with amateur opinions. People who’d read a confident amateur review were willing to pay 54% more for a meal than those who’d read an uncertain amateur review.

Professor Tormala attributes this phenomenon to "expectancy violations":

People expect experts to be confident. Violations of that expectation surprise them. We see that in our data. Subjects reported being more surprised by the uncertain experts and the confident amateurs. A surprise draws you in and makes you pay more attention. It gives the review more impact.
I also think there is another phenomenon at play, which for a lack of a better word I call "Car Salesman Phobia". On a deep philosophic level, we all suspect that there is really no certainty in life. So whenever someone starts to come across too strong about anything, our intuitive alarm bells go off that this person may either have an ulterior motive (like a car salesman) or be so amazed by themselves that they are not checking their own blind spots. Those alarm bells are somewhat muffled when the expert starts admitting that there is room for doubt and further research.

So, you may ask, why is it that when amateurs show confidence we tend to trust them more? This, I believe, is due to the fact we start at such a low trust level with amateurs that their admission of certitude (or anything else other than total ignorance) is a relative improvement.

In conclusion, next time you are pitching your company to an investor or new hire, think about whether or not the person you are talking to would consider you an "amateur" or "expert" and then act with respective dose of humility, 

What do you think?


  1. Really interesting post, Touraj. I think the key to success in most environments is to surround yourself by humble, yet intelligent, people. This holds true particular in startup situations! Lots of interesting research in the area of social exchange theory that digs deep into the psychology of all of this.

    As an aside, I read an interesting blog post by Omar Hamoui the other day on the Churn Labs blog, and one of his bits of advice was to "avoid arrogance at all costs -- Never, never, never, hire people with an attitude. You will regret it."

  2. Hi Touraj

    I have came across this phenomenon 6 years ago as well and wrote about it here (in Persian). Might be interesting:


  3. Thank you Sam and Salman for your insightful comments and encouraging feedback. Keep it coming please!