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Swaggernomics: The Economics of Confidence and Doubt

Doubt is a hot potato we’d rather shift to others.

Key points

  • Swaggernomics is a proposed name for the study of demand and supply of swaggering confidence.
  • Confidence is more fun than doubt, so gaslighters project their doubts onto others—as economists say, externalizing the negative externality.
  • Entertainment is a necessary way to meet society's excess demand for confidence, so long as the entertainment doesn't go to our head.
  • As competition for confidence gets stiffer, we need to get better at play-acting like gods (and remembering to return to reality).

Many people claim to be open-minded and doubt-tolerant simply because it sounds good, not because they really are. Doubt-intolerance is natural, because doubt is uncomfortable. I study doubt and have written whole books about it. That doesn’t mean I like it any more than an oncologist likes cancer.

Doubt is disorienting. We hope our doubts don’t get out of hand because they can become so overwhelming that they breed self-doubt—doubt about whether we have what it takes to deal with the doubts we’re dealt. Conversely, we like confidence because it breed self-confidence—confidence that we have what it takes to handle or deflect the doubts we’re dealt. We prefer knowing to not knowing what to do—so much so that we’ll pretend we know what to do just to avoid doubt.

Economics is a companion social science to psychology. It’s the study of the allocation of limited resources in a world of near-infinite demand. If resources were unlimited, we wouldn’t be as interested in their allocation. Everyone could have as much of everything as they want.

Behavioral economics and social psychology apply economic methods to intangible psychological goods, for example in the burgeoning field of attentionomics, which studies the supply-and-demand allocation of limited attention.

Here, I’ll suggest an underexplored area of research I’ll call swaggernomics, the study of the allocation of a limited psychological resource: confidence.

Confidence is a coveted status, a resource in high demand. Everyone wants it and there’s not enough to go around. We can’t all be right. Someone should doubt themselves. We hope it’s not us.

Imagine that there’s been an earthquake and you’ve heard that half of all houses in your neighborhood have suffered costly cracks in their foundation. You hope that yours isn’t one of them. That’s like swaggernomics. No one wants costly cracks in their psychological foundation. It makes them feel shaky, doubtful. If someone must have cracks in their foundation, let it be our neighbors.

Doubt is what economists would call a negative internality, an internal cost inherent in being alive that we’d rather not pay if we can get away with it. And we often can, simply by shifting doubt onto others, or as economists would say, “externalizing the negative internality,” much as polluters would like to shift the cost of cleaning up their messes to others.

Externalizing doubt is easy: Just doubt anyone who threatens your confidence. When criticized, simply say, “I doubt it,” not that you do. Paradoxically, “I doubt it” often means “I’m confident you’re wrong. You should doubt your criticism of me.”

“Swagger,” a word coined by Shakespeare, comes from “swag,” to swing or sway, which can describe a confident, space-taking strut. Many animals puff themselves up to look larger and more formidable than they are. Goosebumps are a human vestige of “pilo-erection,” primates hair-raising response to threats, puffery that makes them appear bigger than rivals. We can likewise swagger, swaying side to side to take up more space.

“Swagger” also implies wavering. Since we live in an iffy world, absolute confidence will tend to be correlated with hypocrisy. Winds change and we change with them but we don’t want to appear changeable, because it makes us look vulnerable, lacking confidence, receptive to doubt, willing to accept cracks in our psychological foundation.

A confident person doesn’t have to be consistent. Indeed, they’re entitled to be inconsistent. Hypocrisy is the right of gods and kings. Though mere mortals will be frustrated by a king’s impulsive whims, the king can get away with being capricious.

Anyone can imitate the swagger of kings, acting like they’re always aligned with the One True Way when, really, they’re shifting our definition of it with the shifting winds. Being an authoritarian or a gaslighter means never having to say you're sorry, never admitting that you’ve changed your mind even when it’s obvious that you have. If anyone thinks you’ve change our minds, you can simply say, “I doubt it,” meaning they should.

About Dunning-Kruger, sure, people can be so ignorant that they think they're wise, but that's only possible because it's so easy to mimic the gestures of wise people. Any airhead can put on airs, and too many get away with it.

I think of hypocrisy as doing somersaults but denying it, instead insisting that the world keeps turning upside down. Hypocrisy can become so addictive that it explains why people in a hole can’t stop digging. They simply pretend that down is up and that they are on the up and up.

I do my share of advocating doubt-tolerance, but I don’t want to pretend we can just decide to stop craving the swagger. If there’s not enough confidence to satisfy everyone’s demand for it, what can we do?

My best guess is encourage channeling our demand for confidence into entertainment.

I consider entertainment a basic human need. It’s often blended with art and education, but even as a stand-alone, its crucial to our sanity and survival.

We need to be able to play swaggering God somewhere. It’s best if we all have outlets for that, and entertainment is the obvious one. Whether it be siding with the winning sports team; belonging to the winning spirituality; swaggering with the winning hero, superhero, or anti-hero in fiction; identifying with the bodice-ripped beauty in bodice rippers or the superstud in porn—these are all safe offline ways to safely exercise our demand for swagger so long as it doesn’t go to our heads—so long as we can return to reality after pretending we’re gods.

It’s not how far out you go; it’s whether you remember to come back.

If you think you’re struggling with a gaslighter, narcissist, or garden-variety total jerk, it pays to recast your predicament as a case study in swaggernomics. One or both of you might be trying to externalize the negative externality of doubt.