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Self-Confidence: Nature or Nurture?

Are you born with self-confidence?

Is self-confidence something that you're born with or is it taught and developed? It's the classic nature vs. nurture question. While current wisdom has been for some time that it's mostly nurture, there's some surprising new research that indicates we may genetically predisposed to be self confident. 

Smart children on balance to do well in school. That may seem obvious, but there are a lot of exceptions to that rule. Some kids with high IQs don't ever become academic superstars, while less gifted kids often shine.

Why? Psychologists have focused on things like self-esteem and self-confidence—how good children think they are—to explain these outcomes. And the assumption has always been that such psychological traits are shaped mostly by parenting—by parents' beliefs and expectations and modeling. Researchers like Albert Bandura have argued that the initial efficacy experiences are centered in the family. But as the growing child's social world rapidly expands, peers become increasingly important in children's developing self-knowledge of their capabilities. So, until now, an individual's self-confidence was seen to be based on upbringing and other environmental factors.

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Behavorial geneticist Corina Greven of King's College in London and her colleague, Robert Plomin of the Institute of Psychiatry, argue that self-confidence is more than a state of mind—but rather is a genetic predisposition.  Their research, published in the June, 2009 issue of Psychological Science, is a rigorous analysis of the heritability of self-confidence and its relationship to IQ and performance.

They studied more than 3700 pairs of twins, both identical and fraternal twins, from age seven to age ten. Comparing genetically identical twins to non-identical siblings allows scientists to sort out the relative contributions of genes and the environment. Contrary to accepted wisdom, the researchers found that children's self-confidence is heavily influenced by heredity—at least as much as IQ is.  Indeed, as-yet-unidentified self-confidence genes appear to influence school performance independent of IQ genes, with shared environment having only a negligible influence.

The fact that self-confidence is heritable does not mean it is unchanging, of course. Siblings share a lot of influences living in basically the same home and community, but there are always worldly influences pulling them apart. A genetic legacy of self-confidence merely opens up many possible futures.

Greven and Plomin also found that children with a greater belief in their own abilities often performed better at school, even if they were actually less intelligent. They also concluded that same held true for athletes, with ability playing a lesser role than confidence.

So this study, supporting the nature argument for self-confidence should put the cat among the pigeons with coaches, psychologists, trainers and parenting experts, who have argued for some time that nurturing had the most significant influence on developing self-confidence.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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