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 research out that indicates we may be genetically predisposed to be self-confident. On the other hand, even if you have a genetic predisposition to having less self-confidence than others, through good coaching and guidance, your self-confidence can be improved by leaps and bounds.
Smart kids tend 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 would this be? Psychologists have focused on things like self-esteem and self-confidence—how good kids 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.
However, some recent research has rekindled the debate over nature vs. nurture, indicating there may be more of a genetic determinant than we commonly think.
Definition and History of Concept of Self-Confidence
The concept of self-confidence has been defined as self-assurance in one’s personal judgment, ability, or power. One’s self confidence increases from experiences of having mastered particular activities. It is a positive belief that in the future one can generally accomplish what one wishes to do. Self-confidence is not the same as self-esteem, which is an evaluation of one’s own worth, whereas self-confidence is more specifically trust in one’s ability to achieve some goal, which one meta-analysis suggested is similar to generalization of self-efficacy.
Famous psychologist Abraham Maslow and many others after him have emphasized the need to distinguish between self-confidence as a generalized personality characteristic, and self-confidence with respect to a specific task, ability or challenge (i.e. self-efficacy). Self-confidence typically refers to general self-confidence. This is different from self-efficacy, which psychologist Albert Bandura has defined as a “belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task,” and therefore is the term that more accurately refers to specific self-confidence. Psychologists have long noted that a person can possess self-confidence that he or she can complete a specific task (self-efficacy) (e.g. cook a good meal or write a good novel) even though they may lack general self-confidence, or conversely be self-confident though they lack the self-efficacy to achieve a particular task (e.g. write a novel). These two types of self-confidence are, however, correlated with each other, and for this reason can be easily conflated.
Ideas about the causes and effects of self-confidence have appeared in English language publications describing characteristics ranging from a sacrilegious attitude toward God, the character of the British empire, and the culture of colonial-era American societywhere it seemed to connote arrogance and be a negative attribute.
In 1890, the philosopher William James in his Principles of Psychology wrote, “Believe what is in the line of your needs, for only by such belief is the need fulfilled … Have faith that you can successfully make it, and your feet are nerved to its accomplishment,” expressing how self-confidence could be a virtue. That same year, Dr. Frederick Needham in his presidential address to the opening of the British Medical Journal’s Section of Psychology praised a progressive new architecture of an asylum accommodation for insane patients as increasing their self-confidence by offering them greater “liberty of action, extended exercise, and occupation, thus generating self-confidence and becoming, not only excellent tests of the sanity of the patient, but operating powerfully in promoting recovery.” In doing so, he seemed to early on suggest that self-confidence may bear a scientific relation to mental health.
With the arrival of World War I, psychologists praised self-confidence as greatly decreasing nervous tension, allaying fear, and ridding the battlefield of terror; they argued that soldiers who cultivated a strong and healthy body would also acquire greater self-confidence while fighting. At the height of the Temperance social reform movement of the 1920s, psychologists associated self-confidence in men with remaining at home and taking care of the family when they were not working. During the Great Depression, psychologists Philip Eisenberg and Paul Lazerfeld noted how a sudden negative change in one’s circumstances, especially a loss of a job, could lead to decreased self-confidence, but more commonly if the jobless person believes the fault of his unemployment is his. They also noted how if individuals do not have a job long enough, they became apathetic and lost all self-confidence.
In 1943, Abraham Maslow in his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” argued that individuals only were motivated to acquire self-confidence (one component of “esteem”) after they individual had achieved what they needed for physiological survival, safety, and love and belonging. He claimed that satisfaction of self-esteem led to feelings of self-confidence that, once attained, led to a desire for “self-actualization.” As material standards of most people rapidly rose in developed countries after World War II and fulfilled their material needs, a plethora of widely cited academic research about-confidence and many related concepts like self-esteem and self-efficacy emerged.
Other Theories and Research of Self-Confidence
Social psychologists have found self-confidence to be correlated with other psychological variables within individuals, including saving money, how individuals exercise influence over others, and being a responsible student. Marketing researchers have found that general self-confidence of a person is negatively correlated with their level of anxiety.
Some studies suggest various factors within and beyond an individual’s control that affect their self-confidence. William Hippel and Robert Trivers proposed that people will deceive themselves about their own positive qualities and negative qualities of others so that they can display greater self-confidence than they might otherwise feel, thereby enabling them to advance socially and materially.
Daniel Cervone and his colleagues found that new information about an individual’s performance interacts with an individual’s prior self-confidence about their ability to perform. If that particular information is negative feedback, this may interact with a negative affective state (low self-confidence) causing the individual to become demoralized, which in turn induces a self-defeating attitude that increases the likelihood of failure. On the other hand, G.A. Akerlof also found that self-confidence increases a person’s general well-beingand one’s motivation and therefore often performance. It also increases one’s ability to deal with stress and mental health.
A meta-analysis of 12 articles on the subject by Bernard Weiner found that generally when individuals attribute their success to a stable cause (a matter under their control) they are less likely to be confident about being successful in the future. If an individual attributes their failure to an external cause (a factor beyond their control, like a sudden and unexpected storm) they are less likely to be confident about succeeding in the future. Therefore, if an individual believes he/she failed to achieve a goal (e.g. give up smoking) because of a factor that was beyond their control, he or she is more likely to be more self-confident that he or she can achieve the goal in the future. Whether a person in making a decision seeks out additional sources of information depends on their level of self-confidence specific to that area. As the complexity of a decision increases, a person is more likely to be influenced by another person and seek out additional information.
However, people can also be relatively self-confident about what they believe if they consult sources of information that agree with their world views (e.g. New York Times for liberals, Fox News for conservatives), even if they do not know what will happen tomorrow. Several psychologistssugges tthat people who are self-confident are more willing to examine evidence that both supports and contradicts their attitudes. Meanwhile, people who are less self-confident about their perspectives and are more defensive about them may prefer proattitudinal information over materials that challenge their perspectives.
An individual’s self-confidence can vary in different environments, such as at home or in school, and with respect to different types of relationships and situations. In relation to general society, some have found that the more self-confident an individual is, the less likely they are to conform to the judgments of others.Leon Festinger found that self-confidence in an individual’s ability may only rise or fall where that individual is able to compare themselves to others who are roughly similar in a competitive environment.
Paul Price and Eric Stone found that people with high self-confidence can easily impress others, as others perceive them as more knowledgeable and more likely to make correct judgments,despite the fact that often a negative correlation is sometimes found between the level of their self-confidence and accuracy of their claims. When people are uncertain and unknowledgeable about a topic, they are more likely to believe the testimony, and follow the advice of those who seem self-confident.However, expert psychological testimony on the factors that influence eyewitness memory appears to reduce juror reliance on self-confidence.
Jay Conger and colleaguesand Robert House and colleagues found in their research people are more likely to choose leaders with greater self-confidence than those with less self-confidence. Heterosexual men who exhibit greater self-confidence than other men are more likely to attract single and partnered women. In relation to leadership, leaders with high self-confidence are more likely to influence others through persuasion rather than coercive means. Individuals low in power and thus in self-confidence are more likely to use coercive methods of influenceand to become personally involved while those low in self-confidence are more likely to refer problem to someone else or resort to bureaucratic procedures to influence others (e.g. appeal to organizational policies or regulations).
Evidence also has suggested that women who are more self-confident may receive high performance evaluations but not be as well liked as men who engage in the same behavior. However confident women were considered as better job candidates than both men and women who behaved modestly. This may be related to gender roles, as a study found that after women who viewed commercials with women in traditional gender roles, they appeared less self-confident in giving a speech than after viewing commercials with women taking on more masculine roles. Such self-confidence may also be related to body image, as one study found a sample of overweight people in Australia and the US are less self-confident about their body’s performance than people of average weight, and the difference is even greater for women than for men.
Others have found that if a baby child is separated from his/her mother at birth the mother is less self-confident in her ability to raise that child than those mothers who are not separated from their children, even if the two mothers did not differ much in their care-taking skills. Furthermore, women who initially had low self-confidence are likely to experience a larger drop of self-confidence after separation from their children than women with relatively higher self-confidence. Some have suggested that self-confidence is more adaptive in cultures where people are not very concerned about maintaining harmonious relationships. But in cultures that value positive feelings and self-confidence less, maintenance of smooth interpersonal relationships are more important, and therefore self-criticism and a concern to save face is more adaptive. For example, Suh et al. argue that East Asians are not as concerned about maintaining self-confidence as Americansand many even find Asians perform better when they lack confidence.
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. Until now.
Behavioral geneticist Corina Greven of King’s Collegein 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 journal, Psychological Science, was a rigorous analysis of the heritability of self-confidence—and its relationship to IQ and performance. Twenty years ago, Plomin decided to undertake an ambitious study of 15,000 sets of twins in Britain. He’s followed them from birth into adulthood, gaining vast amounts of data on everything from intelligence to a propensity for disease to gender roles. Some of those twins are identical with identical DNA; others are fraternal and share only similar DNA in the way that ordinary siblings do. Twins have long been the most effective subjects for the study of the nature versus nurture conundrum.
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. 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 the same held true for athletes, with ability playing a lesser role than confidence.
In his examination of the academic performance of these twins, Plomin decided to take a closer look at confidence, or the faith the children had in their ability to do well. 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. Put simply, confidence trumps IQ in predicting success.
The researchers also found that a lot of confidence comes in our genes. They’d separated the confidence scores of the identical twins from those of the fraternal twins, and found the scores of the identical twins to be more similar. 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.
Some rather interesting studies in mice have discovered that in some, environmental stressors can lead to abnormally high levels of the genes responsible for anxiety and depression. What’s more — these negative emotions can later be passed onto future generations.
Researchers Karina Burns, Nicholas Burns and Lynn Ward examined the issue of self-confidence from the perspective of personality. They concluded the following:
- Confidence has recently been deemed important because of its predictive validity for academic achievement.
- Non-cognitive factors, specifically confidence, predict academic achievement, when compared to IQ.
- Stankov et al. (2013) confirmed this finding, calling confidence “the best (known) non-cognitive predictor of achievement on cognitive tests.”
The authors suggested that different types of confidence may exist: a cognitive confidence versus a social confidence that can be measured as a part of personality. An important finding was that, of all the self-belief measures, confidence was most closely related to accuracy.
Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of “The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know argue genetics had a strong influence on an individual’s self-confidence.
“A lot of personality is biologically driven,” says Dr. Jay Lombard, one of the founders of Genomind, a pioneering genetic testing company. “It is clearly both nature and nurture, and understanding what genes do to affect the biology of the brain, to create temperament, is something the NIH has now recognized as a priority.”
That a personality trait as seemingly amorphous as confidence might be every bit as inheritable as intelligence struck us as pretty far-fetched; until we discovered we’d ventured upon an entire field of study, the genetics of personality, at a remarkably explosive stage. Countless breakthroughs in the field of behavioral genetics and biology over the past decade have created ever more sophisticated ways to examine the mind in action as well as cheaper, more efficient methods to sequence and compare DNA.
Hundreds of these studies — involving genes, brain fluid, behavior, and neuroimaging — make a strong case that large chunks of our personality are formed at conception. Researchers have pinpointed genes that influence everything from shyness to motivation to criminal behavior to a proclivity to be a professional dancer.
It should be noted that some of the experts we talked with don’t agree with Plomin’s 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.
The genetic research is surprising, and we instinctively want to discount it. But whether we get 50% of our confidence in our genes, or 25%, it’s a big chunk, more than we would have thought. It won’t be long, we figured, before newly pregnant women will be able to take a quick fetal DNA test to determine whether they should invest in safety locks and padded walls or cuddly toys and books.
As tantalizing and voluminous as the science is at this point, it’s hardly exact. It turns out that sifting through our 20,000 genes is slow going. Nothing resembling a complete or partial genetic personality code yet exists. Remember, in the 20 or so years since genetic research has taken off, the emphasis has been on pathology — physical and mental illnesses — rather than on the genetic building blocks of health and wellbeing. That’s just starting to change.
Now, the equally interesting question is becoming: What do the genes of psychologically strong, healthy people look like?
Not surprisingly, intelligence is the positive attribute that has received the most attention. Researchers around the world have already uncovered at least one intelligence gene by comparing DNA and IQ scores. A young Chinese researcher, Zhao Bowen, is looking for another one, his sequencing machine is on overdrive, going through DNA samples from the world’s smartest people.
Nobody has undertaken a project yet to extract DNA samples from the world’s most confident people, and none of the scientists we spoke to believe that there will be just one so-called confidence gene. As is the case with many complex personality traits, scientists told us that confidence is influenced by a large number of genes, dozens or more, which creates a messy stew of hormones and neural activity.
Confidence involves both emotion and cognition. Indeed it has a metacognitive component, because it involves our knowledge about our brain at work. In other words, it’s not simply about whether we can do a task, but whether we assess ourselves to be capable of doing that task.
Even so, scientists are drilling all around the perimeter of confidence these days, as they examine related personality attributes, such as optimism and anxiety. Their work makes it possible to piece together an early, basic formula.
The Arguments Against the Nature (Genetic) Perspective
For most part, though, nature or genes are not under the complete mercy of nurture. Far from it. They have a “mind of their own” which often decides for us important outcomes — how and why we act, react, think, see the world, or feel the way we do. Genes don’t reign over everything in our lives. In fact, as we grow older, hereditary dominances start to decrease, according to researchers Daniel M. Dick and his colleagues. That is — over time, nurture takes over nature, including in shaping our self-worth.
In terms of numbers, per one longitudinal study on twins, genes contributed 62% to the levels of self-esteem in 14-year old boys and 40% in 17-year olds, while for girls these percentages were 40% and 29%. Later on in life, it gets even better. Another studyby S. McGuire and colleagues discovered that the nature effect was 40%, but nurture was responsible for an impressive 60% of our overall confidence.
Research robustly backs up another revelation too. Self-esteem is not static and evolves over time (as we supposedly grow wiser perhaps). Quite unsurprisingly, too, men’s self-esteem tends to move in an upward linear progression, while women have more variable trajectories and experience frequent ups and downs in their self-worth levels.
Despite popular views women, are not completely at a disadvantage when it comes to confidence. Men may be more stable in their self-opinions, but their genes influence these views to a much greater degree. For women, it tends to be a blend of nature and nurture that shapes their sense of worth.
Regardless of gender, however, our unique environments and histories (how and where we grow up, parental care, quality of education) do have a profound say in shaping our levels of confidence. This also explains why some people are seemingly born as “natural” high self-esteemers,” while others struggle to develop that highly desirable sense of self-worth: it depends on our heritage, but more so — on our individual circumstances. While this may sound discouraging at first thought — since many parts of these circumstances, especially while growing up — are outside of our control.
Self-Confidence and Leadership
Great leaders are not made, they’re born. At least, that’s what some people think.
Claims that the best leaders simply have brains that are “wired differently to most” are common, dismissing the notion that the skills can be taught. The idea is not as baloney as you might think: an academic report by University College London (UCL) said that “leadership is partly hereditary”.
A recent studyby H. Hannah from Wake University found that there are neurological differences in the brains of people who had been indicated as leaders. This type of research may make it possible to identify future leadership candidates through brain scans
Richard D. Arvey, Maria Rotundo, Wendy Johnson, Zhen Zhang, Matt McGuev conducted a study to investigate the influence of genetic factors and personality on leadership role among a sample of 238 male twins. Identical twins who share 100% of their genetic background were compared with 188 fraternal twins who are expected to share only 50% of their genetic background. Results indicated that 30% of the variance in leadership role occupancy could be accounted for by genetic factor, while non-shared (or non-common) environmental factor accounted for the remaining variance in leadership role occupancy. Genetic influences also contributed to personality variables known to be associated with leadership (i.e., social potency and achievement). Furthermore, the results indicated that the genetic influence on leadership role occupancy was associated with the genetic factors influencing the personality variables, but there was no definitive evidence whether these personality variables partially mediated the relationship between genetic factor and leadership.
In balance though, the vast majority of research studies support the notion that leadership is largely derived from nurture, from experience and situation, training and personal growth and development. Experts say the reality is much more complicated than newspaper headlines make out. UCL’s report itself acknowledges: “What determines whether an individual occupies a leadership position is the complex product of genetic and environmental influences.” And while papers claim that the study proves leaders such as Churchill or Thatcher were born great, the report’s lead author actually said: “The conventional wisdom – that leadership is a skill – remains largely true”.
For leaders themselves, the misconception that they are in their position because of their natural genetic code could be disastrous. Arrogant and over-confident managers may think they do not need training or experience to become a good leader.
As genetic research progresses and we understand more about brain functioning in the future, it will be interesting to see if any proactive measures are taken to screen potential leaders early in their lives, and subsequently provide extensive training (nurturing) for them. The big questions have now shifted away from whether certain personality traits are genetic or not, and toward figuring out how much exactly our specific environments influence our genes and vice versa.
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