Shy And Badly Dressed


The psychologist Ellen Langer once had subjects engage in a betting game against either a self-assured, well-dressed opponent or a shy and badly dressed opponent (in Langer’s delightful phrasing, the “dapper” or the “schnook” condition), and she found that her subjects bet far more aggressively when they played against the schnook. They looked at their awkward opponent and thought, I’m better than he is. Yet the game was pure chance: all the players did was draw cards at random from a deck, and see who had the high hand. This is called the “illusion of control”: confidence spills over from areas where it may be warranted (“I’m savvier than that schnook”) to areas where it isn’t warranted at all (“and that means I’m going to draw higher cards”).

I was once a shy badly dressed person who didn’t understand why people kept underestimating him.  Now I know.

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  • Constant

    At least one TV show had this as a major element: Columbo.

  • J. Forsberg

    I dunno, might be “let’s not piss off this high-status dude by betting against him” rather than “I have an edge against this slob”. The former seems a lot more rational than the latter and does not involve the players being really stupid about probability.

  • Guy Srinivasan

    Does anyone have a link to the actual study? I was going to go read it but could only find “The psychologist Ellen Langer once had” references.

  • Aron

    Betting f(t) = f(t-1) * 2 + 1, beats betting f(t) = 0, if you stop when you get ahead.

  • Thus Spake A Woman

    1) Of course Robin is now revising his estimations of all the shy, badly dressed people he knows.

    2) No one bother to mention the actual distribution of winning outcomes in each group. (Just saying…)

    3) One now wonders if we might be overestimating Robin… 😉

    4) I’ll let you underestimate me while I take stock of you. Absolutely.

  • When people try to get rid of their predjudices most of the time what they do is rearrange them in their minds

  • Unnamed

    The citation is: Langer, E. J. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 311-328.

    For free online, you can read excerpts from the article via google books (click through to the first book). That’s the best I can find.

  • Unnamed

    Broken link should be:“much+overlap+between+skill”

  • mtc

    Really Robin? You needed a study to explain why people didn’t take you as seriously when you were shy and poorly dressed? Maybe they weren’t really underestimating you after all. Not to be a jerk, but c’mon.

  • Matt

    I think this probably has less to do with people not understanding probability and more to do with people instictively being more concerned with social status then with money. I think the subject is probably thinking, “I’m better then he is, I must show him I’m not afraid to lose a trivial thing like money to the likes of him.”
    I would like to see the subjects in these experiments be evaluated on the basis of their attractiveness.
    What would be the tendencies of someone that clearly has more social status then both the subjects, say a movie star like George Clooney or an extremely handsome man (like me)?

  • ravi hegde

    Savvy dressing and self-assured vibes though are accepted currency in most human societies. In your own intellectual circles, you do not need to dress up or act self-assured without reason. High intellectual power is a very localized currency. This took me a long while to figure out, but most social interactions were simply social dominance battles of one or the other kind among most but not all people. This has to be so because the human female determines her mating choice based on social dominance hierarchies.

    Now having said that, if you were to sit at a high stakes poker table you will see folks dressed as slobs and some of them are quite shy too. I do not think other players regard them as weaklings. Only people low in intellect judge others solely on dressing, I would atleast talk to the guy for five minutes. Self assured sauve dressers are such bores anyways.

  • You know there are a few very highly successful shy and badly dressed people out there. I’m thinking of Warren Buffett, for example. At least back in the days when he first met Katharine Graham. Or Einstein. Are shyness and dress all about signaling? If so, what are these people signaling and why?