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Self-Confidence, Under Confidence, Overconfidence

One follows success and increases curiosity in love and life, the others don’t.

Key points

  • Failure and catastrophe occur more frequently with overconfidence than under confidence.
  • Intolerance of ambiguity fuels the illusion of certainty that afflicts the overconfident.
  • Some authors mistakenly regard self-confidence as an attitude or feeling state that you can talk yourself into.
  • Self-confidence results from experiences of success and correcting or compensating for mistakes.

It’s interesting, though a little depressing, to peruse the self-help titles on Amazon. They mostly fall into two camps. Some address the under confidence of readers, but most sell overconfidence. The imbalance is understandable from the perspective of publishers. Once you achieve self-confidence, you’re unlikely to keep buying self-help books. But lacking self-confidence, you’re certain to buy more books that peddle overconfidence. You’ll need frequent shots of it because it never feels genuine.

Ironically, a rich body of research, beginning with the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1980s, indicates that overconfidence predicts failure more potently than under confidence. On the extreme end, overconfidence brings disasters ranging from financial loss to auto crashes to collapsing bridges to war.

And it could be worse. We’re not descendant from early humans who were overconfident, who thought they could leap across the ravine or take on the saber-tooth tiger. Overconfidence didn’t emerge until the constancy of threats to physical safety declined, sparing us millennia of evolutionary entrenchment.

Compare these definitions from the APA Dictionary of Psychology:

  • Self-confidence: self-assurance, trust in one’s abilities, capacities, and judgment.
  • Under confidence: a cognitive bias characterized by an underestimation of one’s ability to perform a task successfully or by an underrating of one’s performance relative to that of others.
  • Overconfidence: a cognitive bias characterized by an overestimation of one’s actual ability to perform a task successfully, by a belief that one’s performance is better than that of others, or by excessive certainty in the accuracy of one’s beliefs.

Certainty vs. Tolerance of Ambiguity

In addition to doing less harm than overconfidence, under confidence features more tolerance of ambiguity. Though sometimes overwhelmed by it, the under confident accurately perceive that most important decisions are nuanced or ambiguous. The overconfident trade the risk of being wrong for the illusion of certainty. Feeling certain seems more important than success.

We have less tolerance of ambiguity in public figures, which is why we tend to elect overconfident officials. The press and social media rail against politicians who say, “We need more information.” They’re described as evasive, indecisive, or weak, often with a barrage of expletives. Twitter has no room to explore ambiguity and readers have no patience for it. The raucous polarization of our country is due in no small part to overconfidence in oversimplified explanations of complex social and economic issues.


It’s tempting to view self-confidence as the goldilocks choice between over and under confidence. Indeed, self-help books consider it an attitude or feeling state that you can talk yourself into, which is why they don’t help for very long. Self-confidence is more of a working process that helps us do what needs to be done. It results from experiences of success and correcting or compensating for mistakes.

Try asking someone you regard as self-confident if they think they’re self-confident. The likely response will be something like: “Well, I know how to do certain things.”

You'll find that self-confident people don’t think about self-confidence. When asked about it, they recognize that it makes sense regarding specific knowledge and skills. While under and over confidence are emotional states, self-confidence is rational, featuring evidence-based judgments and assessments. Self-confident people appreciate how little they know about most things and are skeptical of those who seem certain. Yet they retain sufficient optimism to foster curiosity and learning. You might say, they’re skeptical optimists.

Love and Confidence

Self-confidence is elusive in modern love relationships. That’s hardly surprising with the breakdown of social norms within and surrounding relationships. The family historian Stephanie Coontz wrote excellent books on the social and psychological changes in marriage, for example, The History of Marriage and The Way We Never Were.

Typically, over and under confident partners attract each other. Attracting an overconfident partner can raise confidence, while the admiration of the underconfident partner validates overconfidence.

The major barrier to self-confidence in love is inflated ego fueling overconfidence. In our relationship boot camps we have everyone declare aloud: “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing when it comes to making a modern intimate relationship work.”

Once they admit that they don’t know how to do it, they have no ego to defend and are free to learn how to understand and love each other.

To increase self-confidence in love and emotional growth in life, we must appreciate how little we know, and enhance our natural curiosity to learn and improve.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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