Saving Face: What We Say Vs What We Do

What People Say and What People Do


One of the most well-documented peculiarities of human nature is that people go to great lengths to try and fill empty space. If you live in a bigger house, you tend to get more stuff to fill it. If you use a bigger a plate, you tend to put more food on it. And, finally, if you go shopping with a bigger cart, you tend to buy more merchandise.

I’m not making a value judgment. I’m not calling you “gullible” or “greedy.” I’m just telling you what, statistically speaking, you are likely to do.

A study cited in Consumerist reveals that, when a shopping cart is doubled in size, people make an average of 40% more purchases. That’s not all that surprising to me. I’ve come to expect this kind of finding.

What astonishes me is the little survey taken by readers at the bottom of the article. (See the image above). The columnist asks the readers whether or not they would buy more if they shopped with a cart instead of a basket. 75% of them said they wouldn’t. Apparently, they didn’t read the article.

What’s going on here? The numbers don’t match up. How can people say they wouldn’t spend more while the data suggests otherwise? Here’s what I think…

It’s Not Me, It’s You

When people see studies like the shopping cart study cited above, they typically say, “Yeah, I could see that happening…but not to me.” It’s the other people who are gullible and oblivious. It’s never us. Why do our claims so often conflict with our behavior? It’s simple: we’re just overconfident.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons discuss how the most confident among us are, ironically, the least competent among us. In other words, we tend to overestimate our abilities. Chabris and Simons call this “the illusion of confidence.”

The authors discuss one study in which researchers sought to understand how good people were at rating their own senses of humor. To do so, they had professional comedians rate the quality of a few jokes. Then, they recruited a group of subjects to rate the jokes as well.

Presumably, those whose judgments aligned more closely with those of the professional comedians had “better” senses of humor. The researchers collected the subjects’ ratings, and then came the fun part.

The researchers asked the subjects to rate how good they were at guessing the quality of the jokes in comparison to others who were surveyed. 66% estimated that they were better than average at making such an estimate. By definition, just under 50% can possibly be better than average. So, 16% of the subjects overestimated.

Can you guess which 16% that was? That is, can you guess which 16% were most confident in their abilities? Yep, that’s right. It’s the 16% that least matched the ratings of the professional comedians. Specifically, it’s those who scored within the lowest 25% of the comparative ratings that were the most confident.

The bottom line is this: the more you think you know, the less you really know.

Looking Smart and Being Stupid

Why are we so resistant to admitting our weaknesses? I believe it all comes down to fear.

We’re afraid of appearing weak.

We’re afraid of appearing ignorant.

We’re afraid of appearing vulnerable.

So we pretend like we have it all together. We pretend like we have all the answers. We pretend that we’re perfectly rational, intellectually bulletproof creatures who couldn’t possibly fall for those silly parlor tricks.

We pretend for one simple reason:

Pretense alleviates fear.

Sure, we’re giving ourselves a false sense of confidence. And, sure, we’re stifling our potential for intellectual growth. But, if it makes us feel better and makes us look better in the eyes of others, why not err on the side of pretending?

Because there is a better way.

There is a powerful state of mind that can eliminate the fear, make you feel better about yourself, and compel others to like you more than pretense ever could. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know exactly what I’m getting at. That’s right, I’m talking about curiosity.

Curiosity Over Confidence

I am convinced that, as paradoxical as it may seem, a curious mind is better for your pride than a confident mind. Here’s why:

  1. Curiosity replaces fear. When you are curious, fear dissipates. Because you lose the need to look like you’re right. You lose the need to impress others. It becomes more about figuring things out and less about looking like you have things figured out. You begin to see vulnerability through the lens of opportunity. Looking wrong grants you permission to become right. You learn more. You grow more. You become more.
  2. Curiosity builds self-esteem. When you are curious, you see yourself as a work-in-progress. You lose the unrealistic expectations of yourself. You begin to define yourself, not based on how much you know, but on how much you are actively seeking to learn. You adopt a growth mindset. Failing teaches you how to succeed. Being wrong teaches you how to be right. You’re consistently happy with who you are, because you see yourself in the context of getting better–not being perfect.
  3. Curiosity is attractive. When you are curious, others perceive your curiosity as humility. There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance. While you may perceive yourself as confident, others may see you as arrogant. If you always have an answer for people, they may think you’re full of yourself. If you always have a question for people, they see you as willing to learn. And that’s attractive because, well, people like to talk about themselves. If you’re willing to listen, most people are going to like you. In the words of Dale Carnegie, “If you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener. To be interesting, be interested.”

In the end, we have to face the facts. Evidence continually confirms that we as human beings are irrational, gullible, and intellectual flawed. Like it or not, we are frail and vulnerable creatures.

As individuals, we can respond to these accusations in one of two ways. When shown that we are indeed incredibly weak, we can respond indignantly:

No, I’m not!

Or, we can respond inquisitively:

I am? Hmm, that’s interesting. What can I do about it?

We can be falsely confident or we can be openly, honestly curious. As for me, I’m striving for the curious life. I think that’s the better way. What about you?

The Curiosity Manifesto: Investigate


About Douglas E Rice

Douglas E Rice is just a guy who likes to learn stuff.
This entry was posted in blog, Marketing, Psychology, Self-Help. Bookmark the permalink.

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