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Overconfident Students Major in Political Science

By Ross Pomeroy

Confidence, being certain that a prediction or a chosen course of action is correct, is widely considered a positive state of being. But when taken too far it can quickly turn negative. Overconfidence, having unrealistic certainty, has been linked to unemployment, market inefficiencies, and even the Great Recession.

In a study published Monday to the journal PLoS ONE, psychologists Jonathan Schulz and Christian Thöni, respectively of Yale University and the University of Lausanne, sought to examine whether a correlation exists between overconfidence and career choice, indicated by the student's chosen field of study.

To find out, Schulz and Thöni surveyed 711 first-year students from the University of St. Gallen and the University of Zurich in Switzerland. The students were brought into the lab in various group sizes and undertook numerous experiments during a session that lasted roughly an hour and a half. Amongst the experiments was a simple task. Subjects were presented with five historical events and were asked to guess the year each occurred. Examples included the reactor accident in Chernobyl and the first flight of the supersonic jet Concorde. Subjects scored more highly the closer their estimates were to the actual date of the events. Lastly, they were instructed to rank their performance amongst their peers. The difference between the ranks they gave themselves and their actual ranks (normalized to a 12-rank scale) served as the measure of overconfidence.

The most overconfident students were in the political sciences. On average, they overestimated their rankings by 1.4 places. Students majoring in law, administration, and economics also tended to over place themselves, but nowhere near the degree of political science majors. Students in the humanities significantly underestimated their rankings.

On average, subjects over placed themselves by 0.44 ranks, reproducing the above average effect, whereby individuals tend to overestimate their performance compared to others. Males students were far more overconfident that female students.

Since the study was conducted at universities in Switzerland, the sample likely consisted primarily of European-born students, so the results may not carry over to students in the United States or other parts of the world. Moreover, the study was correlational, so they authors urged caution in interpreting the data.

"We cannot rule out that subjects’ varying confidence levels are shaped by the experience they gained in their studies. However, our data stems from first year students, who only had limited exposure to an academic discipline."

It is interesting that politically minded students tended to display the most overconfidence. In a prior study, overconfidence was associated with increased voter turnout as well as ideological extremeness.

Moreover, in a USA Today column from 2011, Don Moore, a professor at UC-Berkeley who specializes in studying overconfidence, noted that "the process of political campaigning effectively selects the most confident — those who can go out day after thankless day, asking people for their votes and their money."

"Having elected the most confident candidate, who has won our votes by promising us glory and prosperity, we cannot help but be disappointed when this talented and idealistic politician’s plans run headlong into the realities of a political system that hamstrings him with checks, balances, and entrenched interests who put the brakes on those ambitious plans."

Source: Schulz JF, Thöni C (2016) Overconfidence and Career Choice. PLoS ONE 11(1): e0145126. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0145126

(Image: Shutterstock)

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