That’s Men: Confidence isn’t the problem; worshipping confidence is the problem


I have never been particularly confident. However, I am good at concealing this fact and that skill has been helpful to me from time to time.

Because of my innate pessimism I have tended to look on highly confident people with awe. I wonder at the things they achieve despite the fact that over-confidence is probably just as delusional as over-pessimism.

I mention all this because, without anybody saying so straight out, confidence is getting a bad press at the moment.

As we endlessly re-hash the crisis of 2008 and the events leading up to it, confidence is in danger of emerging as the villain of the piece: confidence in the property market, confidence in the banks, confidence in the regulatory system and confidence in the magical ability of movers and shakers to go on moving and shaking profitably.

There was nothing uniquely Irish in the excess of confidence that accompanied the boom and that accompanies all booms.

For instance, entrepreneurs everywhere tend to be more confident than average. When they experience success, their confidence grows. When other people admire them for their success, their confidence grows further.

Confidence levels
During a boom, confidence levels go through the roof. At the same time, the ability to assess risk dies. So you know you are the best driver in the world because all those people you can see in the rear-view mirror are applauding and you become blind to the fact that you are heading for a cliff.

And yet condemning over-confidence might be as big a mistake as indulging in it. As Daniel Kahneman (who has a Nobel Prize in economics) notes in Thinking, Fast and Slow, a small business in the United States has a 35 per cent chance of surviving for five years but entrepreneurs tend to put the survival chances at 60 per cent.

If they weren’t over-confident, would they put their money, energy and time into overcoming the challenges of getting credit, of satisfying the demands of the planning authorities and of putting themselves up for success or failure in the marketplace?

Without confidence, would you cross the floor and ask for the dance, would you contemplate starting a family, would you follow an ambition?

What seems to bring over-confident people down in the end is that they completely discount the effects of competitors or of the wider environment and believe their skills alone will win the day. That’s when they go over the cliff.

I am pessimistic about our ability to do anything about this. Kahneman points to research showing that chief financial officers are shockingly bad at predicting stock market movements for the following year. But even if they realised this (and many don’t) they could never admit to it: if they did, they would be out of a job.

As Kahneman writes, “people and firms reward the providers of dangerously misleading information more than they reward truth tellers”.

Similarly, television likes experts who exude confidence. It may be more valuable to listen to those who are uncertain but those who are uncertain won’t be coming to a screen near you any time soon.

In a sense, it isn’t confidence that is the problem: it’s our tendency to worship confidence, to cheerlead, to fail to question that does the harm.

Yet if you left the world to those of us who lack confidence, nothing exciting would ever happen. We would still be shivering in our caves, reluctant to venture out for fear of sabre-toothed tigers.

It isn’t confidence we should be targeting but the reluctance of the rest of us to apply the brakes as the over-confident head for the cliff.

Daniel Kahneman’s book is a bestseller. It isn’t the easiest book you’ll ever read but it isn’t the hardest either and his insights are fascinating.

If it’s been sitting on your shelf unread, try the short chapter titled The engine of capitalism and it will give you something to think about for the rest of your life.

Padraig O’Morain ( is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.

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