'Over-confidence works… up to a point'

Our editor Jon Sutton hears from Professor Ian Robertson about his new book, plus an extract.

The new book by Ian Robertson, Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, is How Confidence Works: The new science of self-belief, why some people learn it and others don’t. It is published by Bantam Press on 3 June, and our editor asked Ian about it. Plus an extract, on status seeking.

The book kicks off with tennis legend Venus Williams’ view that confidence is something that can be worked on every day, like going to the gym or training. Is there research from Psychology to back up that idea, that we can learn to be confident?

Yes there is, across the board in fact, in domains ranging from sport to ageing and anxiety management to work performance. Take cycling for example, where you can measure endurance by asking people to pedal until they are so exhausted they can’t continue. Young fit men and women did this in one study and cycled for an average 10 minutes before having to stop. Then half of them were taken aside by the researchers and taught to use confidence-enhancing self-talk phrases. For example, they learned to say you're doing well, feeling good, or push through this. They then had to say these phrases to themselves while doing their next exhaustion test a few days later. The self-talk group boosted their endurance by 18%, from around 10.5 to 13 minutes. They  also felt less strain during the exercise than the other group, whose endurance-time didn't change at all(1).

In another study, researchers increased the grip strength of older people – an excellent predictor of mortality – by giving them confidence-enhancing false feedback about their percentile performance in a pretest. And they also felt much younger than their true age compared to a control group(2)

Treatment success for anxiety disorders has been found to be mediated by self-efficacy, with changes in symptoms trailing improvements in self-efficacy, but not vice versa(3). And a 2019 study in Nature(4) showed academic performance can also be improved by a single web-based session providing the evidence that intellectual abilities are changeable, not fixed and can improve in response to effort, learning new strategies, or asking for help. The effect was particularly strong for the low-achieving pupils, with their confidence in their ability to learn enhanced by learning that their abilities were not fixed. 

Our cover feature this month is about a very visual representation of that confidence boost… the ‘power pose’.

Yes… that early finding, that an expansive, confident-looking power pose made people feel more confident, didn’t replicated well(5). But the apparent discrediting of ‘power posing’ as a confidence-booster was tempered by a 2020 review of all the studies on posture by Aarhus University researchers. They confirmed indeed that expanding your body in space with wide stance or spread-out shoulders and arms doesn’t raise confidence much at all. However, they did conclude that shrinking your posture with folded arms, bowed head, hunched posture and folded legs diminished peoples’ confidence quite significantly(6). So, learning to change posture can contribute to higher confidence – as can many other methods across most domains of human activity. For example, women’s confidence in their ability benefits from adopting an ‘implementation mindset’ where they are focused on delivering on clear selected goal, compared to a ‘deliberative mindset’ where they are musing over the pros and cons of a range of potential personally-relevant goals(8)

You call confidence ‘a bridge to the future’, ‘at the core of what makes things happen’, by combining ‘can do’ about the inner world with ‘can happen’ about the external world. Presumably that bridge can lead to bad places too?

Indeed it can, so let’s take one example. Adam Neumann, former CEO of WeWork, believed that his company’s meteoric rise and scale could solve the world’s biggest problems and told the New York magazine that he needed the largest possible valuation of his company so that he could provide help with issues of global warfare, saying: ‘There are 150 million orphans in the world. We want to solve this problem and give them a new family.’ His company’s mission, he further claimed, was to elevate the world’s consciousness.

In August 2019, Adam Neumann’s WeWork company issued documents about its first public offering of shares at a valuation of $47 billion. By mid-October, this collapsed to less than $8 billion, 2,400 employees were laid off, and Neumann was forced to stand down as CEO.

Overconfidence is the overestimation of your abilities and likely success. Adam Neumann was surely overconfident. In the space of nine years he had grown his start-up from a single office to one of the largest private workspace tenants in New York and London, with locations in over 23 countries. But, ultimately, he couldn’t find families for 150 million orphans, stop global conflict, nor elevate the world’s consciousness. Nor, unfortunately, could he prevent an unprecedented $39 billion collapse in his company’s valuation.

Yet this buccaneering ambition had equally contributed to his investors – including SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son – investing billions in WeWork. Confidence, the research shows, makes people more persuasive, and overconfidence makes them super-persuasive. It can also make them more risk-friendly. According to the US business magazine Fast Company, Neumann called executives who tried to convince him to take fewer risks, ‘B players’. He allegedly barred such pessimists from meetings or otherwise ignored them.

Overconfidence is overwhelmingly a male problem and benefits men and disadvantages women because it makes men persuasive and awards them status which in turn gives them power and wealth. In too-large doses, power distorts judgment, impairs risk perception, reduces empathy and diminishes ethical behaviour(9). The perils of overconfidence is one major reason why we need more women in leadership across the world. 

Are the ‘can do’ and ‘can happen’ aspects of confidence generally linked? Is there a particular kind of person that firmly believes that change is possible but that they’re not the person to achieve it, or that they can do brilliant stuff but it won’t have the desired effect? 

Interesting question. There are sunny optimists who believe that things will turn out but that they don’t have the capacity to influence that change. Applied for example to a person’s own health, however, this is likely to make them anxious – I would lose weight if I ate less, but I can’t do it. Believing that you can do something but that the outcome you want won’t follow – I could pass my exams but my background means that it won’t get me a good job – tends to lead to anger. One of the biggest predictors of can do-can happen confidence is social class and it yields exponentially increasing benefits over a lifetime mediated by the success-enabling effects of confidence. 

Maybe I’m just a grumpy old man, but when I look around I don’t see an epidemic of under-confidence… quite the opposite. Which do you think is the bigger societal problem, and why?

That’s because you are male, white and middle-class, Jon, just like me. I too was rather unaware of this phenomenon until I began to research the book. Confidence is the most valuable resource a person can have because it empowers action, which in turn yields success, causing mood-enhancing and anxiety-diminishing brain changes. It also provides status and influence, and with these come monetary and institutional power. Sex, race, class and age all shape confidence enormously, and if you are on the losing side of any of these categories, you will have no difficulty identifying under-confidence as a major issue for many millions of people. 

You write that there isn’t a level playing field for boys and girls when it comes to confidence. 

A survey of almost 1400 8-18 year old Americans discovered that between the ages of 8 and 14, as they are entering the adult world, American girls show a 30% drop in self-confidence, while boys of similar ages show no drop(10). A study of over 2000 11-13-year-old Norwegian schoolchildren found that, despite showing better academic achievement, girls had less confidence in their academic abilities than boys. They also had lower self-esteem. 

A remarkable study of around a million people in 48 countries discovered that women globally have a lower level of self-esteem than men(11). Rich, egalitarian, individualistic countries with greater gender equality, lower adolescent birth rates and a later age of marriage – UK, USA, Canada, Spain and Norway, for example – had higher teenage male-female gaps in self-esteem. This was when compared to poorer, developing, collectivistic countries with greater gender inequality, higher adolescent birth rates and earlier age of marriage – India, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, for example.

A relevant fact here is that men on average have a more independent  mental model of themselves while women on average have a more interdependent self-view(12). Independence-inclined people – let’s call them individualists – tend to prioritise expressing, sustaining and promoting themselves. They struggle for a sense of uniqueness and spend a lot of time trying to influence other people, rather than adjusting to them. They see the world in terms of individuals and their traits – heroes and villains for example – and are not inclined to interpret people’s behaviour in terms of its context, or relationships. 

Individualists tend to be somewhat overconfident compared to more interdependence-inclined people who tend to prioritise social harmony, relationships and social duties. This makes them inclined to try to adjust to groups more than to influence them. They are concerned less with the struggle to be unique, and more with the effort to keep relationships strong and functioning. They are less likely to pump themselves up in terms of their abilities, achievements and success(13)

Individualists spend much of their mental energy getting what they want, asserting their rights and striving for their goals. They are more optimistic than interdependent-minded people about succeeding because they think they are much better than they objectively are – because they are overconfident.   

And women and girls across the globe are less inclined to be individualistic in their thinking styles than males?
Yes. There is, therefore, a bigger mismatch between rich, individualist-inclined countries’ preferred thinking style and that of their young girls. Adolescent girls tend to think about themselves more in terms of their relationships than boys do – that’s what they are taught to do from an early age. It is what most relatively powerless people, male or female, have to do.

In school, adolescent girls are faced with an army of boy salesmen, trained to exaggerate their personal offerings. This is part of an ego-driven self-confidence that, as we have seen earlier in the book, drives a certain type of success through making people more persuasive and better-performing. 

This higher average self-confidence in boys not only makes them more likely to succeed in sport, but also builds their self-esteem. This is a challenge for most girls. Because of their less individualistic frame of mind, they draw their self-esteem less from personal individual achievement, and more from a sense of connectedness with others and from a shared pleasure in the success of close others. The goals of family and close others are often as important as the females’ own goals, which is less true of males, Iowa State University researchers showed(14).  

What this average difference does mean, however, is that there isn’t a level playing field for confidence among boys and girls. Each sex is playing by different rules. Girls see boys with a confidence that makes them better salesman, persuaders, and performers. These benefits depend on an individualist mindset whose focus is on ego-boosting personal achievement.

Such an outlook means that for many – but not all – boys, relationships are an opportunity to compare and distinguish themselves – a means to an end – rather than an end in themselves. With a more collective mindset, close relationships are that end and shape self-esteem, unlike the individualist, whose independent achievements are the prime driver of his self-esteem. 

Your book is peppered with concrete examples, incidents, quotes etc. Do you collect these as you go through life, confident they’ll come in handy, or was a lot of the research for this book tracking them down?

A book usually takes me 3-4 years from idea to publication. The proposal alone can take a year or more. While the idea is germinating, I find myself noticing examples in the world of the topic and I make notes of these as I go along. That’s already happening with my next book, even though I am fully absorbed still in my fascination with confidence, particularly as the pandemic unwinds and I puzzle about how we can tackle the haemorrhage of confidence – particularly in young people – that it is causing. 

Confidence seems to be something that reaches most corners of Psychology, for example with implications for health, sport, the workplace and more. What one thing would you like readers across the discipline to take into their research and practice?

The early 20th century was the era of physics and the second half was era of biology and genetics. Now the 21st century is the era of the mind. We are escaping the curse of biological determinism, that over-emphasis on ‘hardware’. We are rediscovering the software, the role that the mind plays in our bodies and behaviour, and confidence is central to the operation of that software. So shake off the curse of genetic fatalism. Do not mistake fatalistic beliefs and learned habits for some biological deficit. Understand the role of inequality in shaping confidence, our minds and our bodies in every single domain of life. 

What’s a main way you’ve changed in your own confidence? Do you feel your confidence is now fairly fixed, or will it continue to change?

As a working-class beneficiary of the UK post-war welfare state, my initially low confidence grew steadily through life with my upward socioeconomic mobility and education. I am now much more confident in my sixties than I was at 30. I understand now that confidence is to a great extent a set of beliefs, thoughts and habits that can be learned, not easily or quickly, but steadily. I will continue to acquire them, slowly and steadily, just like the way I am about to progress gingerly from Grade 1 to Grade 2 piano, overtaken by seven-year olds, but confident I will progress! 

- How Confidence Works: The new science of self-belief, why some people learn it and others don’t by Ian Robertson is published by Bantam Press on 3 June. 

The following extract is reproduced with their kind permission.

Find more from Ian in our archive.

Status seeking

Why do people bother with the effort of being overconfident? You might think that life would be so much easier if we were all just honest and accurate about our abilities. Why invest all this energy into over-selling?

Well, overconfidence seems to work – up to a point. It makes people listen and do what the overconfident person wants. But why should people listen to a bullshitter? One persuasive reason emerged in an experiment in which university students took a test about US geography, but weren’t told their grade. They then had to estimate how well they’d performed on the test compared to their fellow students, revealing how over- or underconfident each student was.

They then answered more geography questions, but this time in teams of two. After the pairs had agreed their answers is time in each privately rated their partner as to how good they were at US geography. They also rated how much status and respect they thought the partner was due, in terms of their leadership, influence and contribution to the task.

How did overconfident people do in these influence ratings? They aced it, and duped their partners into buying into their over- confidence. Not only that, but their partners afforded them a higher status rating as a result.

In a second study by the same researchers, MBA students working on projects in groups of five or six over the course of seven weeks were studied to see whether overconfidence also had these effects in the real world.

The 243 MBA students were asked to fill out the ‘over-claiming questionnaire’ – a measure of a person’s propensity to bullshit. They read words or names from literature, history and science, and rated how confident they were that they knew each term on a zero- to-six scale. But, as with the adolescents and their maths test, there were a few fictional items smuggled into each category. For example, in science, cholarine, ultra-lipid and plates of parallax were included alongside genuine terms such as Manhattan Project, nebula and plate tectonics.

At the beginning of the seven-week project, and again at the end, each member of the group secretly rated one another in terms of how much they influenced group decisions. This score had real-life implications because the other members’ ratings were used in the person’s actual course grades. And sure enough, the overconfident bullshitters were ranked higher in influence and status than the non-bullshitters.

How do overconfident people dupe others into giving them higher status? The researchers delved into this question by comparing the behaviour of the students perceived by their peers to be highly confident with that of the others. What they found wasn’t surprising. Their peers saw them as more competent if they talked more and used a factual, confident tone of voice. The impression strengthened if they sat with an expansive, open posture, offered more answers, and expressed certainty about their opinions.

How many people have been chosen for jobs because selection panels overestimated competence due to the overconfidence of a candidate? And how many more – women much more than men – have been rejected because they didn’t bullshit at the interview? Men, as we have seen, are more overconfident than women, on average. They have the advantage of accumulating benefits of this achievement fuel additive over many years. Status, power and wealth tend to accrue to the overconfident.

Could better assessment and monitoring processes detect the bullshitter and make it easier for the modest and accurate self- appraiser to gain influence? A 2013 study suggests that it is going to be very difficult.

University of Pennsylvania researchers confirmed that in problem- solving groups, fellow members tended to see overconfident participants as more competent and accord them higher status. But what if they were to reveal the true performance scores of these overconfident people to the groups? Would that destroy the illusion of competence and bring their status down?

No, it would not. Even when the real abilities of the overconfident were exposed to the group, it didn’t change their status, and they remained respected as high-status influencers.

The resonance with what we see in the present political world is formidable. Fact matters less than presentation. Appearance yields status and power, much more than mere competence and achievement, it seems. Why does this happen?

The research suggests that overconfidence is a signal of high status more than it is information about someone’s actual competence. If you can portray a veneer of overconfidence, that will elevate you and accord you the privileges of higher status, including respect, influence and power. In the real world, these valuable resources can be cashed in and create a self-fulfilling cycle of success. Once a person has banked the booty of overconfidence, the gap between real abilities and pretensions is obscured. He (and it is, of course, mainly he) will have secured respect, influence and power through exaggerating – bullshitting – his abilities. His overconfidence has paid off.

There is a period of time when the gap between reality and pretension is visible before overconfidence turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here, overconfidence often – but not always – pays dividends, as it did for Neumann, for example. If it works, it can create its own reality – again, as it did for Neumann, even if only for a time. If people gain status, power and wealth because of their capacity to bullshit, then once they have it, it becomes a reality and not an aspiration.

The University of Pennsylvania study shows why this works. It seems that people care more about appearance than reality. It doesn’t matter to them if the bullshitting is unmasked – the mere capacity to appear bullishly confident garners status and the illusion of competence. One reason for this is that the trappings of overconfidence – strong voice, eye contact, open posture, strong statements – are primitive signals of dominance that bypass more rational circuits in our brains. And when you start working with strangers in a group, these rational circuits are fully occupied with two main tasks. The first is doing the group activity. The second, much more importantly, is trying to work out what others in the group are thinking about you.

With your limited-capacity, rational, conscious mental processes fully occupied, the more primitive dominance relationships establish themselves through the signals that overconfident people emit. This dominance gives a status that takes precedence over any actual information about the performance of the bullshitter. That status is the currency both for the bullshitter but also, crucially, for those linked to him.

Merely having status, irrespective of how the overconfident person gets it, becomes the source of social reward that he can now dispense to the group. People like to be associated with status, and as they also judge it by seeing others deferring to the high-status person, then their perception is strengthened.

This is the dynamic behind social climbing and status-seeking. Merely being in contact with a high-status person makes it feel like some of that standing will rub off on you. Crowds flock to celebrities for this reason. They don’t clamour for contact with the famous because they think they will get anything tangible from them; it is status that they think might rub off a little on them. And this is why overconfidence is a lucrative pattern of behaviour. It pays off in spades because it tricks people into giving you status. Once you have it, it is near-indelible, even when your incompetence becomes evident.

Overconfidence can give you status in the eyes of others. And with that position comes power.


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