Under confidence, over confidence and self-belief

Staying In

Professor Ian Robertson’s new book is a fascinating read

Bríd Conroy

Has a quiet word of confidence, whispered in your ear, ever given you a much-needed boost or indeed changed the course of your life? Equally, has a word of doubt ever changed the course of your life?
If so, a recently published book by Penguin Random House UK entitled, ‘How Confidence Works: the new science of self-belief, why some people learn it and others don’t’, written by Ian Robertson, will be of interest. It explains the science behind how our individual and collective confidence works, and how this confidence is at the core of what makes things happen in this world. Author Ian Robertson is a clinical psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist, and co-director of the Global Brain Health Institute, run jointly by Trinity College Dublin and the University of California San Francisco.
What is confidence? Confidence is a belief. Unlike, say, optimism and hope, it empowers action. In an uncertain world, “…confidence is a mental stance towards the future that defies this uncertainty by betting on success. It is made up of two parts, the first is the bet you make with yourself that you can do something, the ‘can do’ element, and the second is that if you do this thing the world can change a little, the ‘can happen’ element. It is a bridge to the future.”
Confidence drives us forward and has done for millennia. The places where individual and collective confidence cross over are seen in economics and politics. Robertson cites the case of John F Kennedy, who announced in 1961 that he would have a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Kennedy had imagined a future, and in so doing he galvinised the confidence of the entire country behind him.
Today, we are familiar with phrases like consumer confidence, market confidence, national confidence. Recent studies, for example, show that 18 to 20 year olds who live through a recession have less faith in their ability to succeed.
Evolutionary psychologists argue that men and women have ‘profound biological differences’. Yet in research on sex differences, whilst men were more competitive when the prizes were for cash, women performed better than men when the prizes were educational vouchers for their children. Robertson argues that there is no biological inevitability about women’s confidence being diminished by dominant men. Inherited social rules continue to determine, for example, that men should earn more than women, and so forth.
Can we learn to be confident? If confidence is a belief, beliefs can change and then so too can confidence. The book explains how the brain becomes more active when, in situations where we may feel the need to defend our ego, instead we self-affirm. “Bring to mind thoughts, memories and emotions linked to our most cherished values.”
The reward network in the brain, underpinning positive feelings is particularly involved. By broadening our thinking, the stress hormone, cortisol reduces. This was confirmed in studies of chronically stressed students. Confidence is a mood enhancer and anxiety reducer.
So, can we be overconfident? Well, yes. “Overconfidence can trigger dangerous certainties about the world. It nurtures simplistic analyses and solutions to super-complex realities.”
Research has found that this over-simplified thinking to be a characteristic of extreme left- and right-wing politics, for example. In a University of Pennsylvania study, overconfident students duped other students into giving them higher status because they used factual, confident tones, strong eye contact and had certainty about their opinions. Primitive signs of dominance bypass the rational circuits in our brain.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon randomly assigned volunteers to 40 groups to problem solve. Twenty teams were supervised with over-confident leaders and the other 20 with supervisors showing signs of low confidence. The teams with overconfident supervisors did not perform as well as the other teams, who worked together and developed what Robertson calls ‘their own group intelligence separate from the average IQ of each individual member’.
By working together, without the influence of a dominant leader, the team individually and collectively developed a confidence beyond what they could have achieved alone.
So it seems harnessing the right amount of confidence is crucial for us as individuals and for society as a whole as we move forward, all 7.9 billion of us. ‘How Confidence Works’ is full of interesting facts and is just great to read. I am left with many questions to ponder and dare I say it, a new confidence.

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.