Cognition and perception, Relationships and romance

The trick to getting confidence right

Shaoni Bhattacharya trawls our archive to find out when it works, and if – as the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests – a little learning can be a dangerous thing.

09 February 2022

Believe in yourself, ‘lean-in’, banish your imposter syndrome: these are the modern mantras of mastering skills and achieving what you want. Indeed, a little self-belief can go a long way. But is confidence always a good thing?

The ‘Dunning-Kruger Effect’ (DKE), a term that emerged from the delightfully-named 1999 paper, Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, would suggest no. In fact, people who know a little about a particular subject also tend to overestimate their skills in that area, while true experts tend to underestimate their abilities, according to the DKE.

Kruger and Dunning’s study went on to accrue some fame, winning a fabled IgNobel Prize in 2000. It even took centre stage in a mini-opera, the Incompetence Opera, along with the Peter Principle, to mark the 27th ‘first annual’ IgNobel Prize Ceremony in 2017.

In our March 2022 issue, Robert D. McIntosh and Sergio Della Sala explore the Dunning-Kruger Effect and whether or not it actually exists [see also Dunning's response, and then a response in turn from McIntosh and Della Sala]. The DKE may stem from a ‘metacognitive’ deficit: that in order to accurately assess your own expertise or performance in an area you have to have a certain level of expertise or knowledge in the first place

The idea of the DKE has achieved much popularity, with studies seeming to back the notion of the inexpert overestimating themselves. As Dunning himself put it in the pages of The Psychologist: ‘On average, people think of themselves as anything but average’… which of course is not mathematically possible. An example is a study suggesting that most Americans think they are more intelligent than average. However, some academics argue that the DKE as seen in experiments is the result of a statistical artefact.

Confidence as a resource

Whichever way, confidence is important, not least because its effects can lead to power and wealth. ‘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,’ Professor Ian Robertson at Trinity College Dublin said in an interview about his bookHow Confidence Works. ‘It also provides status and influence, and with these come monetary and institutional power.’

This is crucial because confidence, and over-confidence, may vary with gender, class, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and age. Nurturing confidence can have beneficial effects: raising aspirations and changing behaviour, leading to a sense of control which itself begets confidence.

While confidence may generally be considered helpful, its constant promotion as a solution to dealing with inequalities may not be, say some. It ‘risks us retreating from inequalities and injustices rather than confronting them’, according to Professor Rosalind Gill at City University in London.

Building confidence 

People have looked at ways of building confidence, even connecting it to our postural stances or the 'power pose'. At an organisational or societal level, confidence in decision-making may be affected by factors such as uncertainty and ambivalence

Performance in sports, such as cricket, football and competitive swimming may be particularly affected by confidence. Often players will use ‘self-talk’ techniques before an event to boost their confidence and therefore their outcomes. The DKE or overconfidence may also be evident here. ‘I could have proved their theory [the DKE] after just one trip to Middlesbrough, where expectation and reality are at least ten thousand light years apart,’ said The Secret Footballer referring to football fans in this extract from The Secret Footballer’s Guide to the Modern Game.

Chess is another area where a player’s psychology – and overconfidence – may have big effects. ‘With overconfidence, vigilance goes down, attention becomes relaxed and possible dangers are ignored,’ wrote Fernand Gobet, Professor of Decision Making and Expertise at the University of Liverpool and a chess international master, in his book The Psychology of Chess.

Over-confidence may also be something to be avoided when studying. Even feeling that you have expertise may make some people more close-minded, according to research.

Ultimately, one form of confidence in one’s own skin – self-knowledge – can often remain elusive. Indeed, people often appear to know others better than they know themselves.

On our Research Digest we’ve summarised lots of studies on confidence and overconfidence, which you can search in our archive:

Kids learn from confident adults but only if their confidence is justified – Emma Young

What people think they know about autism bears little relation to their actual knowledge – Dan Carney

Overconfidence can be transmitted from person-to-person – Emma Young

First generation university students are at greater risk of experiencing imposter syndrome – Emily Reynolds

People who are most fearful of genetically-modified foods think they know the most about them but actually know the least – Jesse Singal

The most effective teachers turn to their colleagues for advice while weaker teachers don’t bother – Bradley Busch

Your romantic partner is probably less intelligent than you think suggests new study – David Robson

Different psychiatric symptom dimensions have opposite associations with confidence and insight – Christian Jarrett

People who think their opinions are superior to others are most prone to overestimating their relevant knowledge and ignoring chances to learn more – Tom Stafford

Turns out you can bullshit a bullshitter after all – Emma Young [and find more on bullshit in The Psychologist archive]