Determining the risk associated with overestimating one’s abilities has always been a difficult task.

Central to the challenge is the need to ask a participant to report their own level of self-confidence — which in effect, lowers the validity of the appraisal.

Obviously, the perils of being overly self-confident run the gamut from an investment banker losing millions on a “can’t-miss” start up or a driver who’s had one too many may insisting they can make it home.

Pascal Mamassian, a researcher at CNRS and Université Paris Descartes, France, believes he has found a way to circumvent the self-subjectivity.

In a paper published in the June issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, Mamassian demonstrates that overconfidence can be revealed using a natural and objective visuo-motor task.

Participants in Mamassian’s study sat at a computer and were asked to press a key in synchrony with a visual “blob” that would appear on the screen.

Participants would be awarded points if they succeeded and docked points if they pressed the key prematurely or too late.

Mamassian then used a mathematical model to examine how participants would need to adjust their key tapping strategy in order to maximize their gain and minimize their loss.

Mamassian found that participants routinely failed to aim toward the optimal time, instead displaying overconfidence in their action.

Specifically, “They underestimated the magnitude of their uncertainty and the cost of their error,” he writes.

Because of the objective nature of the task, Mamassian suggests “Overconfidence is not limited to the realm of subjective beliefs and cognitive judgments but appears instead to reflect a general characteristic of human decision making.”

Source: Association for Psychological Science