Often, the issue of self-confidence and self-esteem surfaces in the work that therapists and coaches do with their clients. Questions of the source of self-confidence also arises, including whether people have a genetic predisposition or if it is learned. Self-confidence is considered one of the most influential motivators and regulators of behavior in people's everyday lives. Some experts also believe self-confidence, more than IQ, can account for the success levels of children in school and adults later in life. New research suggests that self-confidence may have a significant genetic component.

What is Self-Confidence?

Self-confidence has also been referred to as “self-efficacy,” and “perceived confidence or ability.” These terms have been used as a way of describing an individual’s perceived ability to perform at a certain level. There is an abundance of research on the topic.

An individual can be viewed as having certain beliefs about their capabilities or competence which contribute to self-confidence. In a sense, it involves an element of self-persuasion, according to researcher Albert Bandura. The source of the self-persuasion can be past performance, self-talk and actual physical states.

For the most part, past performance is viewed by experts to be the most reliable source of self-confidence information. Researchers argue this amounts to “mastery experiences,” which affect self-confidence through cognitive processing. In other words, if an individual views past experiences or performances as a successes, self-confidence will likely increase; however, if these past experiences are viewed as failures, self-confidence will likely decrease.

The term "self-esteem" is concept related to self-confidence and can be viewed as an one's personal perception of worthiness or self-worth. Although self-confidence and self-esteem may be related, individuals can have one without necessarily having the other. So one may not have high self-confidence for a specific type of activity or performance, but still "like themselves." In contrast, one may regard themselves as highly competent at a given activity or performance but does not have corresponding feelings of self-esteem or self-worth.

Other related concepts include locus of control, optimism or pessimism (or learned helplessness). Julian Rotter's notion of locus of control is concerned with a person's generalized expectancies about his or her ability to control reinforcements in life. Individuals who tend to perceive events as within their control tend to have more self-determination; in contrast, those who tend to perceive events as beyond their control behave more fatalistically.

Michael Scheier and Charles Carver view optimism as the "tendency to believe that one will generally experience good vs. bad outcomes in life." In other words, they say, optimism is the tendency to attribute negative events to causes that are unstable, specific, and external; whereas pessimism or learned helplessness is the tendency to attribute negative events to causes that are stable, global, and internal.

It’s interesting to note that self-confident people may have expectations that are not realistic. However, even when some of their expectations are not met, they continue to be positive and to accept themselves, and have a positive sense of self-worth.

People who are not self-confident may depend excessively on the approval of others in order to feel good about themselves. As a result, they may avoid taking risks because they fear failure. They can also be often self-critical and discount or ignore complements given to them. By contrast, self-confident people are willing to risk the disapproval of others because they generally accept themselves and don’t feel they have to conform to others’ expectations in order to be accepted.

Is Self-Confidence in Our Genes?

Scientists have long known that people with certain psychological traits, or resources, can run in families. Countless breakthroughs in the field of behavioral genetics and biology over the past decade have occurred as a result of more sophisticated ways to examine the mind in action as well as cheaper, more efficient methods to sequence and compare DNA. Researchers have pinpointed genes that influence everything from shyness to motivation to criminal behavior. And of course, debate continues to rage as to whether this amounts to predetermination.

The Research on the Genetic Influence on Self Confidence

Robert Plomin, of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Institute of Psychiatry at King's College in London, UK, believes that confidence is encoded in our genes. His study's findings are published in the journal Psychological Science. He studied 15,000 sets of twins in Britain. Twins have long been the most effective subjects for the study of the nature versus nurture conundrum. 

Plomin examined the issue of childrens’ self-confidence. The twins had been given a standard IQ test at age seven, then again at age nine, and they were tested academically in three subjects: math, writing, and science. Next, they were asked to rate how confident they were about their abilities in each subject. Plomin and his researchers also factored in reports from the teachers. Once all of the data had been cross-referenced, the research team was struck by two findings. The students' self-perceived ability rating, or SPA, was a significant predictor of achievement, even more important than IQ. Self-confidence appeared to be more significant than IQ in predicting success. 

Plomin's findings suggest that the correlation between genes and confidence may be as high as 50%, and may be even more closely correlated than the link between genes and IQ. 

Another study reflected Plomin’s findings. Dr. Shelley E. Taylor, author of The Tending Instinct: How Nurturing Is Essential to Who We Are and How We Live, and Shimon Saphire-Bernstein of the University of California, Los Angeles, and their colleagues set out to determine if the OXTR gene might also contribute to optimism, mastery and self esteem. The scientists asked 326 volunteers to complete questionnaires that measured the three psychological resources and also assessed depressive symptoms. The researchers also analyzed the DNA from the participants’ saliva to find variations in the OXTR gene.

As reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers found that people who had 1 or 2 copies of the OXTR gene with an “A” (adenine) allele at a particular location tended to have more negative measurements than those with 2 copies of the “G” (guanine) allele. People with an A allele were less optimistic, had lower self-esteem and felt less personal mastery than people with 2 G alleles. In addition, the A allele was linked to higher levels of depressive symptoms. Follow-up analyses suggested that the effects of OXTR variants on depression are largely mediated by the gene’s influence on psychological resources.

"This study is, to the best of our knowledge, the first to report a gene associated with psychological resources," said study co-author Shimon Saphire-Bernstein. She stressed, however, that while genes may predict behavior, they do not determine it. Taylor agrees. "Some people think genes are destiny, that if you have a specific gene, then you will have a particular outcome. That is definitely not the case," Taylor said. "This gene is one factor that influences psychological resources and depression, but there is plenty of room for environmental factors as well. A supportive childhood, good relationships, friends and even other genes also play a role in the development of psychological resources, and these factors also play a very substantial role in whether people become depressed.

The Argument Against Genetic Determination of Self-Confidence

Some experts don't agree with the research conclusion that confidence is half genetic. They say that broader personality traits—the big five, as they have become known—are accepted to be about 50% genetic. Those are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. But they would put attributes such as optimism and confidence, which are considered facets of the big five, in the range of 25% inherited.

Roland Bénabou and Jean Tirole argue that self confidence is learned, not inherited. If you lack confidence, they say, it probably means that, as a child, you were criticized, undermined, or suffered an explicable tragic loss, for which you either blamed yourself or were blamed by others. A lack of confidence isn’t necessarily permanent but it can be if it isn’t addressed, they argue. Religion, the influence of the culture which formed our perspectives, our gender, social class and our parents, in particular, are all factors which influence and contribute to our level of confidence, the authors contend.

Mauren Healy, author of Growing Happy Kids: How To Foster Inner Confidence, Success and Happiness, and fellow PT blogger takes a similar view, arguing “I am so adamant about self-confidence not being a "pre-determined" biological gift from parents.”  Her view is supported by many helping professionals who work with adults and children on issues of low self-confidence.

In summary, the debate over whether self-confidence is “nature or nurture” will likely continue, but more recent evidence seems to identify a genetic tendency. This is not to say, however, that it is the prime determinant, and that learning confidence cannot be equally important or influential. Certainly from the point of view of assisting children or adults in attempting to make changes in their life, the latter would be critical.

Copyright, 2017 by Ray Williams. This article may not be reproduced or published without permission from the author. If you share it, please give author credit and do not remove embedded links.

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I also write at The Financial Post, and Fulfillment Daily and Business.com 

To read more about how leaders can use mindfulness practices to transform chaotic workplaces, read my book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces.

Ray Williams
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