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Or practically perfect. Brenda Major, a social psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, started studying the problem of self-perception decades ago. The actual performances did not differ in quality. Today, when she wants to give her students an example of a study whose results are utterly predictable, she points to this one. Do men doubt themselves sometimes? Of course. If anything, men tilt toward overconfidence—and we were surprised to learn that they come by that state quite naturally. Ernesto Reuben, a professor at Columbia Business School, has come up with a term for this phenomenon: honest overconfidence.

In a study he published in , men consistently rated their performance on a set of math problems to be about 30 percent better than it was. We were curious to find out whether male managers were aware of a confidence gap between male and female employees. And indeed, when we raised the notion with a number of male executives who supervised women, they expressed enormous frustration. They said they believed that a lack of confidence was fundamentally holding back women at their companies, but they had shied away from saying anything, because they were terrified of sounding sexist.

He eventually concluded that confidence should be a formal part of the performance-review process, because it is such an important aspect of doing business. The fact is, overconfidence can get you far in life. Cameron Anderson, a psychologist who works in the business school at the University of California at Berkeley, has made a career of studying overconfidence.

In , he conducted some novel tests to compare the relative value of confidence and competence. He gave a group of students a list of historical names and events, and asked them to tick off the ones they knew. The experiment was a way of measuring excessive confidence, Anderson reasoned. The fact that some students checked the fakes instead of simply leaving them blank suggested that they believed they knew more than they actually did. The students who had picked the most fakes had achieved the highest status. Confidence, Anderson told us, matters just as much as competence.

Within any given organization, be it an investment bank or the PTA, some individuals tend to be more admired and more listened to than others. They are not necessarily the most knowledgeable or capable people in the room, but they are the most self-assured. He mentioned expansive body language, a lower vocal tone, and a tendency to speak early and often in a calm, relaxed manner. That is a crucial point. True overconfidence is not mere bluster. They genuinely believe they are good, and that self-belief is what comes across.

Most people can spot fake confidence from a mile away. You have to have it to excel. We also began to see that a lack of confidence informs a number of familiar female habits. Take the penchant many women have for assuming the blame when things go wrong, while crediting circumstance—or other people—for their successes. Men seem to do the opposite.

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Women tend to respond differently. Perfectionism is another confidence killer. We fixate on our performance at home, at school, at work, at yoga class, even on vacation. We obsess as mothers, as wives, as sisters, as friends, as cooks, as athletes. The irony is that striving to be perfect actually keeps us from getting much of anything done. So where does all of this start? If women are competent and hardworking enough to outpace men in school, why is it so difficult to keep up later on?

As with so many questions involving human behavior, both nature and nurture are implicated in the answers. The very suggestion that male and female brains might be built differently and function in disparate ways has long been a taboo subject among women, out of fear that any difference would be used against us. For decades—for centuries, actually—differences real or imagined were used against us.

Yet male and female brains do display differences in structure and chemistry, differences that may encourage unique patterns of thinking and behavior, and that could thereby affect confidence. This is a busy area of inquiry, with a steady stream of new—if frequently contradictory, and controversial—findings.

Some of the research raises the intriguing possibility that brain structure could figure into variations between the way men and women respond to challenging or threatening circumstances. They are involved in processing emotional memory and responding to stressful situations.

Studies using fMRI scans have found that women tend to activate their amygdalae more easily in response to negative emotional stimuli than men do—suggesting that women are more likely than men to form strong emotional memories of negative events. Or consider the anterior cingulate cortex. This little part of the brain helps us recognize errors and weigh options; some people call it the worrywart center. In evolutionary terms, there are undoubtedly benefits to differences like these: women seem to be superbly equipped to scan the horizon for threats.

Yet such qualities are a mixed blessing today. You could say the same about hormonal influences on cognition and behavior. We all know testosterone and estrogen as the forces behind many of the basic, overt differences between men and women. It turns out they are involved in subtler personality dynamics as well.


The main hormonal driver for women is, of course, estrogen. By supporting the part of the brain involved in social skills and observations, estrogen seems to encourage bonding and connection, while discouraging conflict and risk taking—tendencies that might well hinder confidence in some contexts.

Testosterone, on the other hand, helps to fuel what often looks like classic male confidence. Men have about 10 times more testosterone pumping through their system than women do, and it affects everything from speed to strength to muscle size to competitive instinct. It is thought of as the hormone that encourages a focus on winning and demonstrating power, and for good reason.

Recent research has tied high testosterone levels to an appetite for risk taking. On days when traders began with higher levels of testosterone, they made riskier trades. When those trades paid off, their testosterone levels surged further. One trader saw his testosterone level rise 74 percent over a six-day winning streak. In research conducted at University College London, women who were given testosterone were less able to collaborate, and wrong more often. And several studies of female hedge-fund managers show that taking the longer view and trading less can pay off: investments run by female hedge-fund managers outperform those run by male managers.

So what are the implications of all this? The essential chicken-and-egg question still to be answered is to what extent these differences between men and women are inherent, and to what extent they are a result of life experiences. The answer is far from clear-cut, but new work on brain plasticity is generating growing evidence that our brains do change in response to our environment. Even hormone levels may be less preordained than one might suppose: researchers have found that testosterone levels in men decline when they spend more time with their children.

School is where many girls are first rewarded for being good, instead of energetic, rambunctious, or even pushy. They have longer attention spans, more-advanced verbal and fine-motor skills, and greater social adeptness. Soon they learn that they are most valuable, and most in favor, when they do things the right way: neatly and quietly.

Maintaining and Enhancing Self-Esteem

And yet the result is that many girls learn to avoid taking risks and making mistakes. This is to their detriment: many psychologists now believe that risk taking, failure, and perseverance are essential to confidence-building.

Boys, meanwhile, tend to absorb more scolding and punishment, and in the process, they learn to take failure in stride. Complicating matters, she told us, girls and boys get different patterns of feedback. Boys also benefit from the lessons they learn—or, more to the point, the lessons they teach one another—during recess and after school. Similarly, on the sports field, they learn not only to relish wins but also to flick off losses. Too many girls, by contrast, miss out on really valuable lessons outside of school.

We all know that playing sports is good for kids, but we were surprised to learn just how extensive the benefits are, and how relevant to confidence. Learning to own victory and survive defeat in sports is apparently good training for owning triumphs and surviving setbacks at work. And yet, despite Title IX, fewer girls than boys participate in athletics, and many who do quit early. Perhaps some cultures place more importance on developing high self-esteem than others, and people correspondingly feel more pressure to report feeling good about themselves Held, A problem with measures such as the Rosenberg scale is that they can be influenced by the desire to portray the self positively.

The observed scores on the Rosenberg scale may be somewhat inflated because people naturally try to make themselves look as if they have very high self-esteem—maybe they lie a bit to the experimenters to make themselves look better than they really are and perhaps to make themselves feel better. If this the case, then we might expect to find average levels of reported self-esteem to be lower in cultures where having high self-worth is less of a priority.

This is indeed what has generally been found. Heine and Lehman reported that Japanese participants living in Japan showed, on average, moderate levels of self-esteem, normally distributed around the scale mid-point. Many other studies have shown that people in Eastern, collectivistic cultures report significantly lower self-esteem than those from more Western, individualistic ones Campbell et al. Do, then, such differences reflect these different cultural priorities and pressures, or could it be that they reflect genuine differences in actual self-esteem levels?

There are no easy answers here, of course, but there are some findings from studies, using different methods of measuring self-esteem, that may shed some light on this issue. Indirect measures of self-esteem have been created—measures that may provide a more accurate picture of the self-concept because they are less influenced by the desire to make a positive impression. Participants worked at a computer and were presented with a series of words, each of which they were to categorize in one of two ways. One categorization decision involved whether the words were related to the self e.

A second categorization decision involved determining whether words were pleasant e. On some trials, the self words were paired with the pleasant items, and the other words with the unpleasant items. On other trials, the self words were paired with the unpleasant items, and the other words with the pleasant items.

Greenwald and Farnham found that on average, participants were significantly faster at categorizing positive words that were presented with self words than they were at categorizing negative words that were presented with self words, suggesting, again, that people did have positive self-esteem. Furthermore, there were also meaningful differences among people in the speed of responding, suggesting that the measure captured some individual variation in implicit self-esteem.

A number of studies have since explored cross-cultural differences in implicit self-esteem and have not found the same differences observed on explicit measures like the Rosenberg scale Yamaguchi et al. Does this mean that we can conclude that the lower scores on self-report measures observed in members of collectivistic cultures are more apparent than real? Nevertheless, values such as modesty may be less prioritized in individualistic cultures than in collectivistic ones, which may in turn reflect differences in reported self-esteem levels.

There are also some interesting age differences in self-esteem that have been uncovered. One interesting implication of this is that we often will have higher self-esteem later in life than in our early adulthood years, which would appear to run against ageist stereotypes that older adults have lower self-worth.

What factors might help to explain these age-related increases in self-esteem? One possibility relates back to our discussion of self-discrepancy theory in the previous section on the cognitive self. Recall that this theory states that when our perceived self-discrepancy between our current and ideal selves is small, we tend to feel more positive about ourselves than when we see the gap as being large. Evidence from Ryff suggests that this may well be the case. As we saw in our earlier discussion of cultural differences in self-esteem, in at least some cultures, individuals appear motivated to report high self-esteem.

As we shall now see, they also often actively seek out higher self-worth. For those of us who are actively seeking higher self-esteem, one way is to be successful at what we do. When we get a good grade on a test, perform well in a sports match, or get a date with someone we really like, our self-esteem naturally rises. When we fail in one domain, we tend to move on until we find something that we are good at.

In short, we feel good about ourselves because we do a pretty good job at creating decent lives. Another way we can boost our self-esteem is through building connections with others. Forming and maintaining satisfying relationships helps us to feel good about ourselves. A common way of doing this for many people around the world is through social networking sites. There are a growing number of studies exploring how we do this online and the effects that it has on our self-worth.

When our friends do not respond to our updates, however, this can negatively impact how we feel about ourselves. One study found that when regular Facebook users were assigned to an experimental condition where they were banned from sharing information on Facebook for 48 hours, they reported significantly lower levels of belonging and meaningful existence.

Whether online or offline, then, feeling ignored by our friends can dent our self-worth. We will explore other social influences on our self-esteem later in this chapter. Although we can all be quite good at creating positive self-esteem by doing positive things, it turns out that we often do not stop there. The desire to see ourselves positively is sometimes strong enough that it leads us to seek out, process, and remember information in a way that allows us to see ourselves even more positively.

The students then wrote explanations for why this might be true. The experimenter then thanked the participants and led them to another room, where a second study was to be conducted you will have guessed already that although the participants did not think so, the two experiments were really part of the same experiment. In the second experiment, participants were given a questionnaire that supposedly was investigating what different personality dimensions meant to people in terms of their own experience and behavior.

Figure 3. You can see that the first memory listed by participants in both conditions tended to reflect the dimension that they had read was related to success according to the research presented in the first experiment. It appears that the participants drew from their memories those instances of their own behavior that reflected the trait that had the most positive implications for their self-esteem—either introversion or extroversion, depending on experimental condition.

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The desire for positive self-esteem made events that were consistent with a positive self-perception more accessible, and thus they were listed first on the questionnaire. Other research has confirmed this general principle—people often attempt to create positive self-esteem whenever possible, even it if involves distorting reality.

We tend to take credit for our successes, and to blame our failures on others. We think that our sense of humor and our honesty are above average, and that we are better drivers and less prejudiced than others. We also distort in a positive way, of course our memories of our grades, our performances on exams, and our romantic experiences.

Once again, though, there are some important cultural differences to note with people in individualistic cultures pursuing these self-enhancing strategies more vigorously and more often than those from more collectivistic backgrounds.

Arlie Loughnan

Indeed, in a large-scale review of studies on self-enhancement, Heine concluded that these tactics are not typically used in cultures that value interdependence over dependence. In cultures where high self-esteem is not as socially valued, people presumably do not feel the same need to distort their social realities to serve their self-worth.

There is also considerable personal diversity in the tendency to use self-enhancement. We emphasize our positive characteristics, and we may even in some cases distort information—all to help us maintain positive self-esteem. There can be negative aspects to having too much self-esteem, however, particularly if that esteem is unrealistic and undeserved. Narcissism is a personality trait characterized by overly high self-esteem, self-admiration, and self-centeredness. Narcissists tend to agree with statements such as the following:. Narcissists are also more likely to bully others, and they may respond very negatively to criticism Baumeister et al.

Given the social costs of these traits, this is troubling news. What reasons might there be for these trends? Twenge and Campbell argue that several interlocking factors are at work here, namely increasingly child-centered parenting styles, the cult of celebrity, the role of social media in promoting self-enhancement, and the wider availability of easy credit, which, they argue, has lead to more people being able to acquire status-related goods, in turn further fueling a sense of entitlement.

As narcissism is partly about having an excess of self-esteem, it should by now come as no surprise that narcissistic traits are higher, on average, in people from individualistic versus collectivistic cultures Twenge et al. The negative outcomes of narcissism raise the interesting possibility that high self-esteem in general may not always be advantageous to us or to the people around us.

A key point is that it can be difficult to disentangle what the effects of realistic versus unrealistic high self-esteem may be. Nevertheless, it is to this thorny issue that we will now turn. Teachers, parents, school counselors, and people in many cultures frequently assume that high self-esteem causes many positive outcomes for people who have it and therefore that we should try to increase it in ourselves and others.

Perhaps you agree with the idea that if you could increase your self-esteem, you would feel better about yourself and therefore be able to work at a higher level, or attract a more desirable mate. If you do believe that, you would not be alone. They began by assessing which variables were correlated with high self-esteem and then considered the extent to which high self-esteem caused these outcomes.

They found that high self-esteem does correlate with many positive outcomes. People with high self-esteem get better grades, are less depressed, feel less stress, and may even live longer than those who view themselves more negatively. High self-esteem people also work harder in response to initial failure and are more willing to switch to a new line of endeavor if the present one seems unpromising.

Thus, having high self-esteem seems to be a valuable resource—people with high self-esteem are happier, more active, and in many ways better able to deal with their environment. On the other hand, Baumeister and his colleagues also found that people with high self-esteem sometimes delude themselves.

But objective measures show that these beliefs are often distortions rather than facts. Such findings raise the interesting possibility that programs that increase the self-esteem of children who bully and are aggressive, based on the notion that these behaviors stem from low self-esteem, may do more harm than good Emler, If you are thinking like a social psychologist, these findings may not surprise you—narcissists tend to focus on their self-concerns, with little concern for others, and we have seen many times that other-concern is a necessity for satisfactory social relations.

Furthermore, despite the many positive variables that relate to high self-esteem, when Baumeister and his colleagues looked at the causal role of self-esteem they found little evidence that high self-esteem caused these positive outcomes. For instance, although high self-esteem is correlated with academic achievement, it is more the result than the cause of this achievement.

Programs designed to boost the self-esteem of pupils have not been shown to improve academic performance, and laboratory studies have generally failed to find that manipulations of self-esteem cause better task performance. Baumeister and his colleagues concluded that programs designed to boost self-esteem should be used only in a limited way and should not be the only approach taken. Raising self-esteem will not make young people do better in school, obey the law, stay out of trouble, get along better with other people, or respect the rights of others. And these programs may even backfire if the increased self-esteem creates narcissism or conceit.

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