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Our brains developed to be influenced by confident people

3rd Feb 2017
Partner Head Heart + Brain
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Confident person giving speech
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Summary: The brain automatically places more value on the opinions of people who appear to be confident, a new study reports.

How would you rate yourself on a confidence scale? If it's high and you are also an influential person it seems to two factors are linked.

Scientists report that confident people are more influential because of how our brains developed. It seems we place more value on the opinions of confident people.

The research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, identified a region of the brain that responds to confident (but not unconfident) opinions of others when making decisions.

It’s a small study, only 23 people but the findings are that expectations of success can be influenced by three key elements:

  • personal experience
  • learning what the majority of people believe
  • most importantly, learning what confident people believe.

The first two activated the brain’s reward system, which predicts how satisfied we will be when we choose something.

Opinions of confident people, however, had an additional effect on this reward system – and only in a part of the brain that appeared late in our evolution.

Dr Campbell-Meiklejohn, one of the researchers, said: “This additional effect seems likely to be the mechanism by which the confidence of others can give us reassurance in our actions. Our findings suggest that social transmission of beliefs and preferences is not as straightforward as copying the person next to you. Other elements are clearly at play during the decision-making process.”

The researchers observed that this extra activity occurs next door to a brain area that helps us consider what others are thinking. This is important for the next step in the research, which is to find out what the brain is actually doing when we observe confident people.

What does this mean for success at work?

Well, confidence is important, especially if you are trying to influence others. And we also know that confidence can be successfully faked.

Amy Cuddy found that acting confident in your physiology by doing a power pose before an important event or meeting actually changed the brain chemicals and more ‘confident chemicals’ were found to be present such as a 20% increase in testosterone and a 25% decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. So practicing your power pose works.

But of course the other side to this finding is that you can be overly influenced by those who appear very confident in their ideas and decisions. Our brain will automatically want to follow their advice. It might serve you well to pause, take a step back and check the data.

The original study

Source: University of Sussex
Original Research: Abstract for “Independent Neural Computation of Value from Other People’s Confidence” by Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, Arndis Simonsen, Chris D. Frith and Nathaniel D. Daw in Journal of Neuroscience. Published online December 9 2016 doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4490-15.2016

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