The power of being underestimated

under-estimationsThe greatest trick the devil ever pulled, was convincing the world, he never existed..."

I should probably start with a spoiler alert, so if you haven't seen The Usual Suspects and don't want to know the ending, don't read on.

Anyway, the film memorably ends with a dialogue between Verbal Kent and Sgt Rabin where Kent weaves the story of crimelord Keyzer Soze.  Kent famously portrays himself as a physically disabled individual who partakes in petty crime, before it dawns on Rabin that Kent is in fact Soze.

Great movie though it undoubtably is, this blog does have a slightly more professional slant to it.  For parallels, you only have to look at the performance of Rupert Murdoch during his grilling by parliament over the hacking scandal.  

New research investigates the benefits of being under-estimated.  Xianchi Dai at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and his colleagues investigate this very issue, producing some findings that they say have practical social lessons for us all. 

Traditional psychological thinking has humans wanting themselves thought of in a positive light, and therefore the researchers wanted to test whether people would always like to hear over-estimates about themselves.

What is interesting is that they discovered the opposite can be true.  The first study found recent graduates to be happier if people under-estimated their salary than if they over-estimated it.  Likewise, people were happier if others under-estimated their score on the MBA GMAT exam.

Why under-estimates make us happy

So why does this happen?  The researchers suggested it very much depends on circumstances.  It basically comes down to whether you yourself know the thing people are estimating.  If you don't know the value measure others are estimating then you prefer to have your ego massaged by an over-estimation.  

If you are however aware of the score being used, ie your salary or your exam score, then things become a wee bit more complicated.  In such a circumstance your preference for an over/under estimation depends on whether you want to make a good first impression, or whether your priority is getting a truthful answer.  If a good impression is your priority then you'll probably prefer an over-estimation because it makes you seem good.  If the truth is your priority though an under-estimate is better because it makes the truth seem even better.


For the participants seeking to impress their colleagues, hearing an over-estimate was preferred. By contrast, for participants saving for a property purchase, hearing an under-estimate was preferred, presumably because it made the true, larger amount seem all the more gratifying.

"Imagine that, at a party, you have learned that your friend, Linda, is selling her house, which you believe is worth approximately $500,000. Her friends, including you, are guessing how much she can sell it for. Because Linda does not yet know the truth (the actual sale proceeds), we suggest that you should guess high, if you intend to make her happy. You might say, 'it's such a nice house, I guess you can sell it for $600k.' Now, imagine an alternative scenario, in which Linda has just sold her house, is desperately in need of money, and cares more about the actual proceeeds than others' impressions. In this case you should guess low. Rather than saying, 'It's such a nice house. You must have sold it for $600k,' you should say, 'I'm not sure. Would $400k sound reasonable?' Now Linda can say to herself, 'Wow, I am glad I sold it for $500k ...' and savour the pleasure."

So under-estimations are better if you know full well that the reality is substantially better.



Hmm, interesting.  Great movie btw.