How to be more confident, according to science

Step 1: Embrace the placebo effect

No one doubts the value of confidence. In fact, research shows people often prefer confidence over actual expertise.

G. Richard Shell teaches at the Wharton School and his book, Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success, has a great chapter on how to be more confident.

Here's what you need to know.

1. Surround yourself with people who believe in you

I've posted a lot about how the power of context can improve behavior. And people are a part of that. When you're told you're good by someone you respect, you believe it. Partially it's a placebo effect. But that's perfectly fine.

This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you believe you can do it, you work harder. When others believe in you, they push you harder. Together, these things make you do better — so you have a reason to be confident. And then next time, confidence comes easier.

The phenomenon of transferred expectations, also called a "self-fulfilling prophecy," occurs for a combination of two reasons. The person holding the expectation treats the other person differently, giving him or her more challenging work to do. This leads to more learning. At the same time, the person receiving the suggestion accepts it as an accurate assessment of his or her ability, and that in turn increases the level of effort the person gives.

The lesson here is plain: you should understand the power of being in a high-performing/ high-expectation social environment versus a low-performing/ low-expectation one. Your social setting can strongly affect what you believe is possible — and that will affect your confidence, the effort you expend, and the results you achieve. [Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success]

2. Focus on learning

When you focus on learning, failure is just a part of the process and won't shake your confidence. Tests are not a gauge of self-worth or unchangeable, innate ability. They're a measure of how much improvement you've made. Building on the research of Carol Dweck, you want to have a "growth mindset": Measure yourself by effort, not by results.

…repeated experiments have demonstrated the value of praising effort rather than innate talent. If you are praised by others in the right way, this can lead you to praise yourself based on your genuine effort when you accomplish something significant and discount comments about the role of your natural ability. You should ignore any result — good or bad — that comes after you put in only a halfhearted effort. And you should be proud of any result that follows hard work — even when the result is not what you had hoped. [Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success]

3. Create a ritual

What gets you in the zone? What gets you feeling ready? A cup of coffee? Preparation and review? Playing a game on your phone? Recent research from Harvard professors Michael Norton and Francesca Gino shows that rituals have the power to make you more confident.

Francesca explained in my interview with her:

What we studied in this project was whether these rituals are really of beneficial effect in terms of bringing you confidence and potentially impacting your performance positively. That is actually what we found. What is interesting about the studies is that we also have physiological measures. What we find is that if you engage in a ritual prior to a potentially high anxiety task, like singing in public or solving difficult math problems, you end up being calmer by the time you approach the task, and more confident in what you're about to do. As a result of that, you actually perform better. [Barking up the Wrong Tree]

4. Accumulate small wins

Some Olympic athletes train in a way that is designed to build confidence. Rather than focusing on the gold medal, they set smaller achievable goals and build from there. By seeing themselves accumulate these little wins, their confidence grows and grows until they feel unstoppable.

In one of the best articles on Olympic training I have ever read, Daniel Chambliss tracked the techniques used by U.S.A. Swimming to get its athletes ready to compete in the Olympic games. One of the common threads in this training was to focus on a series of "small wins" in training rather than on the larger goal of winning a medal. As Chambliss summarized it, the swimmers "found their challenges in small things: working on a better start this week, polishing up their backstroke technique next week, planning how to pace their swim." As a result, they got the satisfaction of "very definable, minor achievements," which in turn gave them the confidence to attempt more small wins each and every day. [Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success]

5. It's rational to do the irrational

This is a very rational blog. You, however, are not a very rational creature. So do what works, even if it seems irrational. Research shows good luck charms do inspire confidence. And this improves performance on a variety of tasks.

The researchers found that by activating good luck beliefs, these objects were consistently able to boost people's self-confidence and that this up-tick in self-assurance in turn affected a wide range of performance. Lucky thinking, it turned out in this study, positively affected people's ability to solve puzzles and to remember the pictures depicted on 36 different cards, and it improved their putting performance in golf! In fact, people with a lucky charm performed significantly better than did the people who had none. That's right, having a lucky charm will make you a better golfer, should you care about such things, and improve your cognitive performance on tasks such as memory games. [The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver]

6. Get to work

Yes, some people are naturally super confident. Others fake it. And you can, with some work, build confidence. What did Alfred Binet, the inventor of the IQ test, say about intelligence?

It is not always the people who start out the smartest who end up the smartest. [Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success]

The same is true of confidence.

Join 45K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

More from Barking up the Wrong Tree...


The Check-In: The passport waiting game
U.S. passports

The Check-In: The passport waiting game

The Week contest: Dad jokes
Father and son laughing.

The Week contest: Dad jokes

A company made a meatball from lab-grown woolly mammoth, and you can't try it
Mammoth meatball
'extinct protein'

A company made a meatball from lab-grown woolly mammoth, and you can't try it

6 marvelous homes with great kitchens

6 marvelous homes with great kitchens

Most Popular

Millions of Americans poised to lose Medicaid coverage on April 1
Doctor holding clipboard.
healthcare at risk

Millions of Americans poised to lose Medicaid coverage on April 1

Jennifer Aniston: Friends is now 'offensive' to a 'whole generation'
Jennifer Aniston
the one where they get canceled

Jennifer Aniston: Friends is now 'offensive' to a 'whole generation'

The 8 most bizarre moments of Gwyneth Paltrow's ski crash trial
Gwyneth Paltrow

The 8 most bizarre moments of Gwyneth Paltrow's ski crash trial