When you tell a joke, do people laugh because they think you’re funny, or do they laugh because they’re polite and don’t want you to feel bad? It’s often hard to tell. And when you can’t tell the difference between genuine amusement and polite laughter, you may be apt to assume it’s the former instead of the latter, gaining a false sense of confidence if it happens often enough.

This is a common scenario, according to recent research from Florida State University (FSU) as reported by MedicalXpress.com. This month, FSU assistant professor of psychology and lead author Joyce Ehrlinger presented a paper at the American Psychological Association’s 120th convention in which she shared her findings that social norms make people less inclined to provide negative feedback, which can lead to overconfidence in others, a conclusion drawn from three studies that recreated everyday interactions.

For the paper, Ehrlinger and two FSU graduate students conducted studies that would recreate awkward social situations.

For example, in one study, participants on opposite sides of a controversial issue were recruited and paired off. One participant in a pairing was then asked to try to convince the other of his or her views. The other participants usually would smile or give vague agreements, which gave the persuaders a false confidence boost even though these responses were probably made just to reduce the likelihood of conflict between participants. Another study followed the same lines, except instead of trying to be persuasive, participants were asked to try to be funny. They also ended up overconfident because other participants often politely laughed at jokes, even if they didn’t find them funny.

In general, the researchers felt that this reluctance to criticize might not necessarily be a bad thing. Ehrlinger is quoted as saying, "There's definitely no harm in some types of overconfidence, and I am not suggesting that we should stop living in a polite society. The worst that might come from someone believing that they are funnier than, in reality, they are is a bit of embarrassment or wasted effort auditioning for America's Got Talent."

But she does caution against making serious mistakes based on this type of overconfidence, saying, "Overconfident doctors and lawyers might offer their patients or clients poor advice. There are ways in which overconfidence is dangerous, and it might be important to set aside politeness in the service of helping people avoid the perils of overconfidence."

So while honesty may not always be the best policy when it comes to negative feedback, you may want to help your fellow man out by offering constructive criticism. It’s also a good idea to encourage people to do the same with you. If you assure them that you won’t take negative comments personally and will instead use them to try to improve yourself or your work, you may be more likely to hear the truth.

(Photo by Victor1558 via Flickr Creative Commons)

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