Don’t wait on confidence

You wake up, uncomfortable, to beeping sounds and urgent voices. “He’s awake!” There are voices. Hurried footsteps. You notice the uncomfortable tubes. You’re in hospital. Over the next hour you learn you’ve been suffering from a mysterious it-could-only-happen-in-Hollywood illness. You’re recovering now but you have completely forgotten who you are. You have simply no recollection of your previous life. You can still speak English but many commonplace things are now mysterious to you. All the same, you’ve not forgotten everything. For instance, you can still walk. People arrive and they say they’re your friends and relatives. Some of them do indeed bear a physical resemblance. They take you to an apartment which they say is yours, bring you groceries, and try to help you remember your former life.

After a couple of weeks, your friends are getting worried that you’re sitting in the apartment all the time. One suggests you try ‘riding’ a metal contraption. You know it’s called a bike but you have no idea how to ride it. Your friend shows you videos of yourself, on this very bike, and says you’ve always been a very accomplished ‘cyclist’. You put it off but you’re intrigued. Later the same day, and presumably motivated by the same desire to see you getting active again, another friend comes round with some rollerblades. You think you know the drill now and so you ask whether you used to be an expert rollerblader. She says no but that you’ve always wanted to have a go.

Now, which one of these activities, in your strangely amnesiac state, do you think you’re more likely to be more confident about? If pushed by your well-meaning friends to try one or the other, which would you feel safer having a go at? Why?

I’m guessing you said bike riding. Because apparently you’ve done it before. So now tell me. Which comes first, self-efficacy beliefs or the behavioural repertoire they’re about? In other words, do you get confident at something and then do it, or do it until you can do it confidently?

I’ve asked hundreds of people a version of this question, and pretty much everyone says they’d feel more confident about riding a bike. “Maybe I wouldn’t have forgotten, and I’ve done it before.”

A great many psychological theories ignore the results of this rather simple thought experiment. Most of them in fact. Despite a century of criticism, psychologists are still too interested in thinking and not interested enough in behaviour. One of the most important schools of thought in psychology is entirely entranced by information processing theory. The assumption is that it’s possible to understand people as though they were robots; information comes in through the eyes, ears and so on, is processed by the computer (the brain) and signals are then sent to the motors in the legs, arms, hands, etc. This model implies very strongly that thoughts cause behaviours. Intelligent psychologists realise that this is an oversimplification, but it doesn’t stop this way of thinking from infecting most psychological theories with its over-simplicity.

What does this have to do with confidence? Well, if you feel a lack of confidence is holding you back, a great many self-help gurus and even well-trained psychologists will tell you all about techniques to trick your brain into thinking you are more confident. Once you’ve got that sorted, your brain will send the right signals to your body, right? For instance, it’ll stop sending signals to make your heart race and your hands sweat. They’ll point to lots of studies showing that people who are confident (who have self-efficacy, to use the psychological jargon), do better at things. So you just need to gain confidence, and then you’ll do better! After all, there are scientific studies, showing that it’s true! Unfortunately, even highly educated psychologists frequently forget that evidence of correlation is not evidence of causation. To be blunt, this is a stupid way of thinking.

Time for a quicker, simpler thought experiment: Billy Bob wants to be a great chef. He’s downloaded a great audiobook, called ‘Think yourself confident in cooking!’ and has listened to it many times. It doesn’t contain any actual cooking advice, it doesn’t tell you which herbs go with eggs, or how to save a sauce that’s too salty, but it has lots of exciting exercises where you visualise yourself as a chef in a fancy restaurant and imagine how good it’s going to feel when you’re in charge of your own kitchen. Having done the programme, Billy Bob feels much much more confident. He hasn’t really tried to cook anything more complicated than eggs on toast yet, but he does at least feel confident.

How much do you trust Billy Bob to cater your next party?

Confidence does not, and should not come first. In fact, it would be dangerous if it did. Each time we start out on a new path, it’s our brain’s job to be hyper-vigilant, to be on the look-out for how we might screw up, to keep us a bit nervous. Overconfidence is risky. You have to start down the path anyway, taking your unconfident, anxious brain with you.

This is summed up in a common cliché: “You have to fake it until you make it.” Corny, I know. But it became a cliché because it points to something true. I once said it to a student who was self-sabbotaging because she “had no confidence”, and the response was vehement: “That’s the cheat’s way! It’s just stupid! I’ll be found out!”

No. No. No. It’s not the cheat’s way. It’s the only way. You can’t think yourself confident in cooking. You just have to cook.

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