The Scourge of Self-Confidence
Our culture is in love with self-confidence — defined by Merriam-Webster as trust “in oneself and in one’s powers and abilities.” A Google search of the term yields top results with titles such as “Practical Ways to Improve Your Confidence (and Why You Should)” (The New York Times), “What is Self-Confidence? + 9 Ways to Increase It” (positivepsychology.com), and “How to Be More Confident” (verywellmind.com). Apparently, self-confidence is an especially valued trait in a romantic partner: a Google search for “self-confidence attractive” comes back with titles like “Why Confidence Is So Attractive” (medium.com), “4 Reasons Self-Confidence is Crazy Sexy” (meetmindful.com), and “6 Reasons Why Confidence Is The Most Attractive Quality A Person Can Possess” (elitedaily.com).
I will argue that self-confidence is vastly, perhaps even criminally, overrated. But first, a concession: clearly, some degree of self-confidence is required to think or act effectively. If a person has no faith in her ability to make judgments, she won’t make many of them. And without judgments, thinking and reasoning is hard to imagine, since judgments are the materials of thought. Similarly, if a person has no faith in her ability to take decisions, she won’t take many of them. And since decisions are necessary for much intentional action, such a person will often be paralyzed into inaction.
Nevertheless, the value that we place on self-confidence is entirely inappropriate. The first thing to note is that behavioral psychologists have gathered a mountain of evidence showing that people are significantly overconfident about their ability to make correct judgments or take good decisions. Representative of the scholarly consensus around this finding is a statement in a frequently-cited 2004 article published in the Journal of Research in Personality: “It has been consistently observed that people are generally overconfident when assessing their performance.” Or take this statement, from a 2006 article in the Journal of Marketing Research: “The phenomenon of overconfidence is one of the more robust findings in the decision and judgment literature.”
Furthermore, overconfidence is not a harmless trait: it has real-world effects, many of them decidedly negative. For example, a 2013 study found “strong statistical support” for the presence of overconfidence bias among investors in developed and emerging stock markets, which “contribut[ed] to the exceptional financial instability that erupted in 2008.” A 2015 paper suggested that overconfidence is a “substantively and statistically important predictor” of “ideological extremeness” and “partisan identification.” And in Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions, published at the start of the second Iraq War, the Oxford political scientist Dominic Johnson argued that political leaders’ overconfidence in their own virtue and ability to predict and control the future significantly contributed to the disasters of World War I and the Vietnam War. And of course, the sages of both Athens and Jerusalem have long warned us about the dangers of pride.
To be sure, there is a difference between self-confidence and overconfidence. Drawing on the classical Aristotelian model of virtue, we might conceive of “self-confidence” as a sort of “golden mean” between the extremes of overconfidence and underconfidence. According to this model, self-confidence is warranted trust in one’s own powers and abilities, while overconfidence is an unwarranted excess of such trust. So why should the well-documented and baneful ubiquity of overconfidence make us think we overvalue self-confidence?
The answer is that valuing self-confidence to the extent that we do encourages overconfidence. The enormous cultural pressure to be and act more self-confident to achieve at work, attract a mate, or make friends is bound to lead to genuine overestimations of ability and more instances of people acting more self-confidently than they really are. Both outcomes risk bringing forth the rotten fruits of overconfidence.
At least in part because we value self-confidence so much, we have condemned ourselves to suffer the consequences of pervasive overconfidence. As I’ve already suggested, my proposed solution to this problem is not a Nietzschean “transvaluation” of self-confidence, a negative inversion of our current attitude. Instead, it’s a more classical call for moderation: our attitude towards self-confidence should still be one of approval, but approval tempered by an appreciation of the danger of encouraging overconfidence.
That being said, we know that we tend to err on the side of overconfidence, not underconfidence. Given this tendency, and assuming, as Aristotle claimed, that virtue is a mean “relative to us” — meaning that it varies according to a particular individual’s circumstances and dispositions — it follows that we probably ought to value what looks a lot like underconfidence to us. In this way, we can hope to encourage people to develop a proper degree of self-confidence — but no more than that.