Sagging confidence can lead to more self-interested behavior – or less

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Sagging confidence can lead to more self-interested behavior – or less

Researchers have found that sagging confidence can lead to more self-interested, even fraudulent, behavior. But also, paradoxically, to more altruistic behavior.   Most of us know what it feels like to lose confidence. Your golf game went badly. You got passed over for a promotion. You're not so great with numbers or get tongue-tied when it comes to making social small talk. What happens to our social behavior when that happens?   

What the researchers sayNew research published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making says that experiencing low confidence in one area can lead to attempts to boost our status in another, even if it means engaging in fraud. If we seek better financial status, we may behave more selfishly, or cheat.   We may go in the opposite direction though, choosing altruism as the best way to restore our confidence. The study shows we're more likely to take that route when the behavior can be seen by others, or when we have a sense of social solidarity.   “The state of confidence can fluctuate very easily when our situation changes, and confidence can increase selfish, money-making behaviors or altruistic acts depending on whether money or altruism is perceived as the primary source for status that can restore low confidence,” says the lead researcher.   Knowing that our tendency to behave selfishly or selflessly can shift, and that employee fraud alone costs U.S. companies $50 billion annually, “it's important to understand the interplay between situational confidence and selfish behaviors,” she said.   

The researchers performed a series of experiments to test how people responded when triggered into a state of temporary low confidence by recalling past negative events or engaging in challenging cognitive tasks.   Low confidence participants avoided purchasing more expensive, environmentally friendly products, kept more cash for themselves when splitting a monetary gift with another participant than higher confidence people. They also awarded themselves significantly more unearned bonus money when checking their performance under an honor system. Well over one-third of the low confidence people cheated, compared to 10 percent in the high confidence condition.   However, when participants made public choices or made decisions within a strong community, lower confidence actually increased preference for green products and generosity in sharing monetary resources.   

Data from the U.S. and China show that government employees nearing retirement and in deputy leadership positions are at highest risk of engaging in corruption, says the paper. To avoid that kind of activity, management should try to understand factors that can lead to reduced confidence and increased status-seeking among employees, the researchers say.   “Are there ways that we can help people increase their confidence? Are there ways to acknowledge their contributions to the organization? Such public acknowledgement can restore lower confidence effectively,” concluded the researchers.   

So, what? If you look at the underlying human science at work here it all becomes clear. If we feel we are going to be abandoned—forced into retirement, laid off, retrenched etc.—we are much more likely to punish those that we feel are responsible. Hence fraud. A human’s greatest fear is exclusion.   Further we are status-seeking animals (like most mammals,) since to us status equals safety, and we will cheat, or be altruistic, to acquire status. Low confidence is often a sign of a perception of lack of social status. The particular behavior that someone adopts to compensate for low confidence, or perceived low social status, is probably genetic rather than social.   

What now? As the researchers say the best way to give someone a sense of confidence, and status, is through praise and acknowledgement. These actions stimulate the production and uptake of the key reward/status/bonding neurochemicals oxytocin and dopamine and influence the expression of the genes that regulate these chemicals.   Also, if you strive to make people feel safe and included then they are far more likely to act in an altruistic way towards you, their colleagues and, by extension, the business.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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