We seem to prefer people who err on the side of underestimating the likelihood of their own success. Modesty is a virtue; conceit is not.
However, if someone is appraising us, we prefer that they are biased in the opposite direction. We would like them to tell us how talented we are.
Consider the book example from the previous post. If someone is talking about their own manuscript, we might be annoyed if they tell us it’s probably going to be a bestseller. However, if they were talking about our manuscript, we’d feel pretty good if they thought so highly of it.
Similarly, if someone is talking about the prospects of success of our in-group, then we prefer optimistic language. For example, we like politicians who tell us how great our local economy will be. It is similar to self-appraisal, if you think of self as the community that that politician represents. However, we would benefit if the prediction came true, so we do not have the same negative reaction.
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I’ve argued previously that we were less happy in real time than we believe we were in retrospect. I’ve also argued that we like optimists better than pessimists. Thus, it would appear that we like people (including ourselves) to be biased towards a more favorable outlook of the world. However, I think this theory needs refining, because a favorable outlook for one person might be unfavorable to another.
Self-deprecating vs self-aggrandizing
A friend pointed out that it is more enjoyable to spend time with someone who is more self-deprecating than self-aggrandizing.
Consider the following example. Suppose we read a manuscript that an acquaintance of ours would like to publish. Suppose we thought the book was good enough so that it was likely to get published, but not good enough to be a best seller or make the person famous. Consider three possible attitudes of the acquaintance:
- they make it clear to you that they fully expect to get rejected by every publisher;
- they believe the book will likely get published, but will not be a best seller or make them famous;
- they believe the book will be a best seller, and they believe they will end up discussing it on shows like Oprah and Good Morning America
Which attitude is preferable? Is modesty a virtue, even above accuracy (i.e., do we prefer 1 over 2?)? If we have to choose between the two inaccurate views (from our perspective), which do we prefer? I think we would prefer attitude 1 over attitude 3, even though both are inaccurate (in our opinion).
If we like people who have an optimistic view of the world, then why do we not prefer attitude 3?
Paraphrasing my friend: we worry that overconfident people will have no problem trying to overtly gain resources that we want. We worry that others will be fooled and give them the money or fame or whatever we want for ourselves.
We do not like to hear about how great someone is, because we do not believe they are better than us, but we worry that other people might. Perhaps that’s why we even view boasting as worse than violence in some circumstances.
This is related to status welfare: status matters and is relative; if a peer becomes successful our status might lower. What is optimistic for our acquaintance might be pessimistic for our future status prospects. Hearing about someone else’s prospects for future success is hearing about a future where we do not measure up to them.
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