The two faces of confidence

You are not necessarily what you think of yourself

In Summary

• The least competent people are often the most confident.

A cat sees itself as a lion in the mirror
A cat sees itself as a lion in the mirror

Confidence. We think the world of it. We encourage it, admire it, respect it, we want to possess it.

We see it happen often. Confidence walks up to a group of people, men and women alike, and it is met with oohs and aahs, and grunts of approval. Occasionally these exclamations and sounds are accompanied by positive murmurings, such as, ‘Quite impressive. Yes, yes, quite.’

But, as I recently learned, we should probably be a little less effusive when we encounter confidence, for not all confidence is good confidence.

If somebody who looks confident says to you they’re confident, they’ll be able to do something, a job perhaps, or a project, anything really, does that give you any insight into how well they’re going to perform the task? The answer is no, it does not. Unfortunately, we think the answer is yes, it does. Almost always we mistake confidence for competence.

The research has been done, and it turns out that one of the most consistent findings in all of psychology, according to Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, is there is very little overlap between how good people think they are at something, and how good they actually are.

Put another way, this time by Ed O’Brien, a professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago, the correlation between a person’s confidence and their performance is zero.

Confidence alone tells us nothing about competence. In fact, so the psychologists say, in many cases overconfidence is an indicator of incompetence. This is to say, the least competent people are often the most confident.

This is because of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a type of cognitive bias in which people believe they are smarter and more capable than they really are, but they lack the skills needed to recognise their own incompetence. This leads them to overestimate their abilities.

In practice, the Dunning-Kruger effect works like this: The less they (incompetent people) know, the less they think there is to know, making whatever the task is look easier to do. This gives them the illusion of competence and, therefore, confidence.

Strangely, confidence can just as easily delude experts. Experts know everything there is to know about their particular area of expertise. This makes them confident because they’re certain about what they know.

The error with this certainty and the confidence it breeds is things evolve all the time. A fact today may not be a fact tomorrow, but if you’re too confident an expert, certain you know and you’re always right, the confidence blinds you to the sea change.

It’s not all bad, though. In psychology, there is yet another concept related to confidence known as positive illusions. These are unrealistically favourable attitudes people have towards themselves.

In picture form, the concept is represented by a kitten looking at a mirror and seeing a lion. As it happens, this kind of confidence, seeing yourself in a more positive light than is warranted, is good for your motivation. This, in turn, makes you healthier, decisive and enterprising, thus helping you live up to your potential.

So, to be, or not to be confident, that is the question.