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The Dark Side of Having Confidence

Why the toxic cult of self-belief needs to stop.

Key points

  • There is only a weak association between confidence and competence, yet Western societies often value confidence above all else.
  • Focusing on confidence can lead to promoting megalomaniacs and rewards men more than women due to sex differences in confidence.
  • Over-emphasizing confidence also reduces self-awareness, creates a narcissistic culture, and makes humility a rare trait in leadership positions.
EZ-Stock Studio/Shutterstock
Source: EZ-Stock Studio/Shutterstock

Few traits are as celebrated in the West as confidence—so much so that a large proportion of self-help books, coaching sessions, leadership, and training programs focus on boosting people's self-belief (sometimes under the name of growth mindset, self-efficacy, motivation, etc.).

There are many appealing aspects to this feel-good approach to personal change, such as the fact that few would prefer to feel insecure than confident, pessimistic than optimistic, or hopeless than hopeful. And yet, there are also many logical and empirical arguments to resist the confidence cult:

1. There is only a weak association between confidence and competence.

Contrary to popular belief, there is only around a 9 percent overlap between confidence (how good people think they are) and competence (how good they actually are). We know this from peer-reviewed meta-analyses showing a correlation of around 0.3 between measures of self-perceived and actual ability. Thus, there is a big difference between picking someone who is confident, and someone who is competent. I don't know about you, but I would rather have a heart surgeon, flight pilot, financial advisor, and president who is competent rather than confident.

Of course, if our goal is to find someone who is entertaining because they are unaware of their incompetence, like those singers in the early rounds of America's Got Talent, then fine, let's bet on confidence. Confidence without competence is highly entertaining, unless they are your boss or prime minister.

2. Too much confidence reduces self-awareness.

As the famous Dunning-Kruger effect shows, experts and idiots don't differ much in their confidence. You need to know something well to understand what you don't know. Low performers tend to remain unaware of their talent gaps, while proficient people gain meta-cognition and awareness of their flaws and errors.

Along the same lines, studies show that when employees rate their managers more negatively than managers rate themselves, their managerial performance is lower. If your confidence increases beyond your level of competence, your self-awareness will go down, and with it your performance. Moreover, if our goal is to boost self-esteem and self-belief, then you can expect self-awareness and self-knowledge to decrease. "Always wrong yet never in doubt" is, unfortunately, more common than "never wrong yet often in doubt." As Charles Darwin noted, "ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge."

3. Promoting people on confidence helps deluded megalomaniacs get to the top.

We appear to be overly preoccupied with impostor syndrome. However, it is more problematic to live in a world in which actual impostors are in charge. As Voltaire noted, "doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd." One of the upsides to having impostor syndrome, and thinking that you are not as good as you actually are, is the low probability of actually being an impostor. People who worry about being a fraud are generally not fraudsters. In contrast, when we promote people on the basis of their lack of insecurities, excessive self-adulation, and grandiose sense of entitlement, we can be certain to end up with too many overconfident and deluded megalomaniacs in charge. This is so clear, that I don't even need to give you examples—we are, alas, spoiled for choices.

4. Rewarding confidence over competence harms women.

We keep blaming women for not "leaning in" or showing male-like levels of confidence, as if ambition were indicative of talent, particularly when it is fueled by an inability to understand one's limitations. Instead of blaming women for not leaning in, we should stop falling for people who lean in when they don't have the talents to back it up, and they are more likely to be male than female.

Sex differences in self-estimated intelligence are well-documented, with men consistently rating their talents more highly than women rate theirs, and men being more likely than women to overestimate their own talents. Also, parents tend to assume that their sons are smarter than their daughters, from a very young age and in the absence of actual sex differences in intelligence.

In short, men get rewarded for thinking they are smarter than they are, while women get punished for understanding their limitations. Our obsession with confidence over competence is such that we may even prefer overconfident to competent women, and overconfident to competent men, which explains why so many incompetent men become leaders, and how so many competent women (and men) don't.

5. We are generally too confident.

In contrast to what the self-help industry may suggest, the world is not pathologically insecure. In fact, extensive neuroscience research shows that we are generally overly optimistic and self-confident. In the words of Tali Sharot, "we underrate our chances of getting divorced, being in a car accident, or suffering from cancer. We also expect to live longer than objective measures would warrant, overestimate our success in the job market, and believe that our children will be especially talented. This is (...) one of the most consistent, prevalent, and robust biases documented in psychology and behavioral economics."

Likewise, Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Prize winner and founder of behavioral economics) noted that "we're generally overconfident in our opinions and our impressions and judgments." I documented this 10 years ago in Confidence, which is has been largely ignored despite the non-stop prevalence of dreadful leaders who combine a surplus of confidence with a lack of competence.

6. Glorifying confidence and self-belief make humility a rare trait at the top.

Despite compelling evidence for the idea that the most effective and talented leaders are humble rather than confident, and systematic empirical evidence showing that arrogant and narcissistic leaders pose a threat to their teams and organizations (and nations), we continue to appoint to leadership roles people who perform well in job interviews, even when they are unaware of their limitations, overconfident, or charismatic psychopaths.

Only in a world that equates assertiveness to talent could a book like Susan Cain's Quiet, which in essence argues that "it is OK to be introverted," be hailed as counterintuitive. And yet despite Cain's deserved success, we continue to assume that overt displays of confidence are somehow indicative of competence, that people who talk a lot have something to say, and that status and dominance are a sign of talent. Sad.

7. In a normal world, we would focus on substance rather than style.

At times, there is nothing wrong with confidence. But surely our goal should be to actually understand how good you actually are. The only reason we focus on style rather than substance is that it is a lot easier (and we are lazy).

Over the course of our evolutionary history, it was generally easy to spot talent. We spent time with the same group of people and talent was mostly a function of observable physical skills, rather than complex and abstract intellectual qualities. No more. As Geoffrey Miller notes in Spent, as our capacity to understand talent increased, our ability to fake it increased even more.

Confidence plays a big role here: It is the main weapon we use to fake competence, particularly with those who (a) lack the expertise, or (b) are themselves overconfident about their ability to figure how smart we are. Even if you have a Ph.D. in leadership, you will likely be fooled by politicians who appear charming and charismatic in televised debates, especially if they cater to your core values. Otherwise, why would smart people rarely elect the smartest leaders?

8. Low confidence can be highly adaptive at times.

Two people approach a busy traffic junction; one feels less confident than the other about her ability to get to the other side. Guess who will get hit by a bus? Two people prepare for a job interview: one thinks he will ace it without much preparation; the other feels unsure and decides to prepare until the final minute. Guess who will perform better? (Okay, assuming the interviewers can actually distinguish between confidence and competence).

As these examples show, there's a clear evolutionary reason for our ability (yes, it is an ability) to feel low confidence, namely to prepare ourselves for action, and reduce the probability of painful, unfortunate, or embarrassing events. This is the true power of negative thinking, and over the course of our history, many wise philosophers and thinkers have explained why pessimism and negative outlooks are critical to a prosperous and successful life, unless our success depends on people who equate our confidence with competence, in which case we may be best off faking it until we make it. Sadly, the best way to fool others is to fool yourself first, and this is arguably the biggest danger to rewarding confidence and self-belief (back to 3).

9. Worshipping confidence and self-esteem creates an entitled and narcissistic culture.

It is pointless to give examples. Think about our role models (Kim and Kanye, Cristiano Ronaldo, Jeff Bezos), how we measure success (earnings, qualifications, and followers), or where we spend our time (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok).

Unsurprisingly, narcissism has been on the rise for decades. Unless the trend is reversed, future generations will look back at today's celebrities, including Kim and Kanye, and say "wow, weren't they humble?" Although Asian cultures are much more prone to foment self-criticism, humility, and self-knowledge (over self-confidence, arrogance, and narcissism), the West may be globalizing narcissism, probably not in a deliberate attempt to reduce the work ethic and humility of the East, though it may well have that effect. One of the most toxic and problematic cocktails combines high aspirations with a low work ethic—the very definition of narcissistic entitlement. The only fix is to get a reality check and risk becoming depressed, unless you distort reality forever.

In sum, there is nothing wrong with confidence when it aligns with one's actual competence, and it functions as an accurate barometer to detect treads and dangers, as well as reinforcing real accomplishments and accurate positive feedback on our performance and development. Since most people think more highly of themselves than they should, a less confident world would be a better world.

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