What They Don’t Tell You About Confidence

1. “If we can dream it, we can do it.”

2. “There are no beautiful surfaces without a terrible depth.”

Which one of these quotes resonates most with you?

The first, a well-known adage by American Disney executive Tom Fitzgerald (a quote apparently misattributed to Walt Disney himself), glows with radiance and positivity. The second, by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, speaks of uncertainty and hardship. It may be that both resonate with you. As an informed guess, however, it’s likely that the first will have had a greater impact on most people.

The reason informing this assumption is we live in an era where confidence is key. The modern philosophy is as follows: if you have self-confidence that you can do something, you’ll be able to do it. And indeed, confidence provides an internal drive for us to look forward and succeed in achieving our ambitions. It helps us cope with difficulties in many cases, to empower us in recovering from setbacks and to persevere when the going gets tough.

Not only that, confidence has an outward impact on how others perceive us. Research has shown that when we demonstrate confidence, this leads others to surmise that we are trustworthy, capable and credible.(1) Think, for example, of two individuals delivering a presentation. One has confidence, while the other is lacking. Who do you expect might deliver their speech more effectively? Which individual might garner more buy-in and support afterwards? One study looked at the effect of nonverbal confidence and message quality on viewers’ evaluations of politicians.(2) Participants were asked to watch short clips of various politicians delivering a speech. Interestingly, while both higher nonverbal confidence and higher message quality increased a candidate’s perceived qualifications for the role, nonverbal confidence had a much higher impact than message quality when determining a candidate’s electability.

Confidence, then, is important to secure positive first impressions. However, questions understandably arise when confidence drifts into the domain of overconfidence. And this overconfidence, a state of being too certain of our capabilities or chances of success, may be more commonplace than we think. One well-chronicled demonstration of overconfidence is our tendency to engage in the better-than-average bias. Consider, for example, that 65% of Americans believe they are more intelligent than average.(3) 90% of people rate their driving abilities as better than average.(4) A majority of people even believe that they are less susceptible to the better-than-average bias than average!(5) Statistically speaking, it’s almost impossible for such a large majority to be smarter, better drivers, and less susceptible to bias than average.

Considering how easy it is to unconsciously elevate ourselves into overconfidence, there are other issues. The mantra, “fake it ‘til you make it”, encourages the putting on of an act of confidence to achieve a goal (even if you don’t have the skills or knowledge to back it up), with the expectation that eventually it will come true. But the long-term effects of unsubstantiated confidence (or overconfidence) can be hazardous. Overconfident entrepreneurs often showcase these dangers; in following the growth of 203 independent small firms, researchers found that while entrepreneur overconfidence was useful at gaining support and buy-in during the start-up phase (short-term), it was also strongly predictive of overreaching and unrealistic forecasts, firm failure, and negative outcomes for its employees (long-term).(6) In a similar vein, narcissistic leaders are often judged to be successful in the short-term, but often encounter a fall from grace once peers find out that that (over)confidence isn’t backed up with actual competence and capability.(7)

Deliberately dialling up our confidence levels too high may therefore be counterproductive. Well-founded confidence (or confidence that matches one’s competence and capability) serves leaders much better over the longer-term.(7) Likewise, confidence can be specific; just because we might be skilled and confident in one area doesn’t mean we can’t be lower in confidence when unskilled in another area. Confidence needn’t be all-encompassing, and this perspective may lead to better self-awareness and more accurate personal development. What’s more, humility about one’s achievements has been found to lead to increased likeability.(8)

Like many assets, confidence is a double-edged sword. Its benefits are well-documented already, but the dangers are broadcast to a lesser extent. Unfortunately, it seems to be human nature to unwittingly slip into states of overconfidence from time to time. And while simply putting on a strut and raising our voices may boost our impressions in the short-term, these can backfire long-term, creating a greater deficit from which we need to recover than had we adopted a more modest approach in the first place. Our confidence should instead be treated and honed carefully, supported by actual capability, and monitored a little more closely. This is the real key to confidence and our subsequent successes.


1. Weining, A. N., & Smith, E. L. (2012). Self-esteem and trust: Correlations between self-esteem and willingness to trust in undergraduate students. Inquires Journal/Student Pulse, 4(8): 1-2

2. Dumitrescu, D., Gidengil, E., & Stolle, D. (2015). Candidate confidence and electoral appeal: An experimental study of the effect of nonverbal confidence on voter evaluations. Political Science Research and Methods, 3(1): 43-52

3. Heck, P. R., Simons, D. J., Chabris, C. F. (2018). 65% of Americans believe they are above average in intelligence: Results of two nationally representative surveys. PLoS One, 13(7): e0200103

4. Svenson, O. (1981). Are we all less risky and more skillful than our fellow drivers? Acta Psychologica, 47(2): 143-148

5. Friedrich, J. (1996). On seeing oneself as less self-serving than others: The ultimate self-serving bias? Teaching of Psychology, 23(2): 107-109

6. Invernizzi, A. C., Menozzi, A., Passarani, D. A., Patton, D., & Vigila, G. (2016). Entrepreneurial overconfidence and its impact upon performance. International Small Business Journal: Researching Entrepreneurship, 35(6): 709-728

7. Peltokangas, H. (2015). Self-esteem, tenure, and narcissistic leader’s performance. International Journal of Business and Social Research, 5(12), 26-39

8. Wosinska, W., Dabul, A. J., Whetstone-Dion, R., & Cialdini, R. B. (1996). Self-presentational responses to success in the organization: The costs and benefits to modesty. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 18(2): 229-242

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