The Harvard behavioral science professors Alison Wood Brooks and Francesca Gino and the Wharton business professor Maurice Schweitzer discovered this phenomenon through a series of experiments they conducted over the past few years.
Here’s how they described the first one, in Scientific American:
We asked 199 students to complete a “challenging brainteaser” that consisted of seven IQ test questions. We told half of the subjects that they would be paid $1 for each correct answer. We told the other half that they would be paid based on a partner’s rating of their competence on a scale from 1 to 7 and would earn $1 for each point on the rating scale. Before answering the questions, participants could send a message to their partner, who had purportedly completed the brainteaser earlier. They could ask their partner for advice (“Hey, can you give me any advice?”), send no message or send a neutral greeting (“Hey, I hope you did well”).
It turned out that the people who were trying to appear more competent, rather than simply correct, were twice as likely to ask their partners for advice.
Follow-up experiments lent support. People who sent their fellow participants a text message asking for advice on a brainteaser were rated as smarter than those who sent generic, positive messages. (However, this worked best when the task was truly difficult.)