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Cognition and perception, Work and occupational

How poverty shapes confidence

An extract from How Confidence Works: The new science of self-belief, why some people learn and others don’t by Ian Robertson (Bantam Press).

17 June 2021

Groups of people, even where millions of people are involved, can have a sense of collective confidence. Leaders play a major role in building this. So, can collective confidence be learned? A 2014 study from an impoverished, food-insecure region of Ethiopia suggests that it can. Poverty in an area shapes the can do and can happen expectations of whole communities. When everyone around you is struggling, it is understandable that expectations become tailored to what seems to be an unchangeable reality.

The researchers at the Centre for Economic Policy Research asked local development agents to find stories of people who had improved their wellbeing despite adversity. They chose ten people and made short documentaries about their lives. They told the stories of their achievements, which ranged from starting a small business to diversifying their sources of income. Their spouses and mentors gave testimony to their personal qualities such as perseverance, determination and reliability. The fact that they succeeded through their efforts, albeit with some outside help, was emphasized.

In other words, the films tried to build confidence – both its can do and can happen elements. A one-hour screening of these ten short documentaries was then shown to groups of people in their villages. Compared to placebo control groups who watched entertaining movies, the confidence-building film groups showed significant changes in their behaviour six months later.

First, their aspirations – their can happen expectations – were raised, and they began to save more and become financially more stable. They sent more children to school, and the people in these communities showed a boosted sense of control over their lives – something that we have seen already is crucial for confidence.

Confidence can be learned – and that includes the collective confidence of large groups of people, including whole nations.

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