Too Confident?

Monday, July 09, 2012

Business writer Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic makes the provocative claim that what he calls "low self-confidence" is more conducive to success than what he calls "high self-confidence". Along the way, he makes several good points, including the following:

Lower self-confidence makes you pay attention to negative feedback and be self-critical: Most people get trapped in their optimistic biases, so they tend to listen to positive feedback and ignore negative feedback. Although this may help them come across as confident to others, in any area of competence (e.g., education, business, sports or performing arts) achievement is 10% performance and 90% preparation. Thus, the more aware you are of your soft spots and weaknesses, the better prepared you will be. [bold in original]
This is quite true -- except the part in bold. Anyone can learn to pay attention to negative feedback, and become more self-critical.

Given the author's general message that we should evaluate our abilities and preparedness objectively and the relevant dictionary definition of confidence (i.e., belief in oneself and one's powers or abilities; self-confidence; self-reliance; assurance), I think Chamorro-Premuzic's point would have been far better served had he spoken of over- and underconfidence, rather than high and low self-confidence. After all, once someone has learned what a skill or goal takes, becomes able to do it, realizes he can do it, and makes a practice of preparing himself appropriately, wouldn't he be confident in himself? And why would this high level of confidence impede future success? There is always the danger that an "old hand" might become complacent, but it seems to me that a habit of self-monitoring would be essential to genuine self-confidence.

Over- and underconfidence are not points on a contiuum of self-appraisal, but examples of errors in measurement that differ in which direction the discrepancy lies. One cannot be too confident, but one can incorrectly feel too confident. That is indeed an error to avoid!

-- CAV

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