New Research: "Is Belief Superiority Justified by Superior Knowledge?"

The title of this post is taken from a recently published research paper by Michael Hall and Kaitlin Raimi. The authors observe that it is not hard to find people who exhibit "the belief that their own views are more correct than other viewpoints" or "belief superiority." They also note a strong positive correlation between "belief superiority" and the degree of confidence that they are correct. An important distinction is that belief superiority results from a comparative judgment, while the latter reflects the strengths of one's convictions.

The focus of Hall and Raimi's research was the extent to which individuals' views about the superiority of their beliefs was justified. As they note, "for a belief to be superior — or more correct — than other beliefs, it should have a superior basis in relevant factual information. Following this logic, belief-superior individuals should possess more accurate knowledge than their more modest peers, or at least better recognize relevant facts when presented with them."

When confronted with this research question, and calling to mind people they have encountered with "belief superiority complex", most people reading this probably have a strong intuition about what the authors research found.

"Belief superior people exhibited the greatest gaps between their perceived and actual knowledge."

However, Hall and Raimi go on to note that, "even if belief superiority is not supported by superior knowledge, belief superiority could be justified by another process: Superior knowledge acquisition. That is, they may seek out information on a topic in an even-handed manner that exposes them to a diversity of viewpoints. As a result, their belief superiority may reflect a reasoned conclusion after comparing multiple viewpoints."

Unsurprisingly, that is not what the authors found. Instead, "belief superior people were most likely to exhibit a preference for information that supported their pre-existing views."

In sum, "belief superior people are not only the least likely to recognize their own knowledge shortcomings, but also the least likely to remedy them."

In our research into the root causes of corporate failures, we have frequently noted that organizational failures to anticipate threats, accurately assess them, and adapt to them in time are driven by fundamental individual and group cognitive and emotional factors that are extremely difficult to change (because, for centuries in our past they were beneficial in the evolutionary sense, and provided an advantage when it came to survival, resource acquisition, and mating).

Hall and Raimi's research findings are yet another example of the deeply rooted individual factors (which are frequently reinforced by group processes) that are the deepest root causes of corporate failure.

As we repeatedly emphasize, the chances of altering these factors through training or incentives are somewhere between slim and none. Instead, organizations' best hope for survival rests on designing processes, systems, and structures that deliberately seek to offset individual and group factors' predictably negative effects.