Confidence is a good thing, right? Everyone wants confidence.  It makes you more attractive to others. It helps your performance. It makes you feel good about yourself. It allows you to set high goals. It's good stuff.

It's also an illusion.

The reality is that there are only two conditions you can be in. You can either have an accurate view of your own abilities or an inaccurate view. Confidence is similar to will power in the sense that neither of them exists and yet society is quite certain they do.

Will power isn't a real thing because humans simply act based on the greatest impulse in their brains at the moment. The guy who can best resists eating cupcakes is the one who enjoys them the least, or is the least hungry. Will power never enters into the equation. It is a rationalization after the fact.

Confidence and will power feel as if they are real things because we have words to describe them, and we usually agree when the words apply. That's why the illusion is so persistent. If the words didn't exist, I don't think the illusions would be so troublesome.

I came to this view of because people insist on viewing my various behaviors through the framework of confidence. When I have a realistic view of my ability to do some particular task well, I am labeled confident, as opposed to simply accurate. When I predict that I would be below average at some particular task, based on years of knowing myself, I am labeled unconfident when in fact I am simply right or wrong. Where does confidence come in?

Suppose a drug existed that could give you the sensation of confidence independent of your actual ability to perform tasks. Would that be a good thing? Actually, we know the answer to that question because the drug is alcohol and it kills 37,000 people per year in automobiles alone, just in the United States.

But what about the self-fulfilling nature of confidence, you ask? Doesn't the feeling of confidence sometimes make you perform better? A confident public speaker, for example, is a better speaker. A confident quarterback will make better decisions, and so on.

I would argue that in some cases your performance can be enhanced by generating in yourself just the right amount of illusion about your own performance. A quarterback might imagine himself able to throw the perfect pass 100% of the time in order to succeed half of the time. He would be using confidence as a useful illusion because it keeps his energy in balance after some bad misses.

Generating a temporary illusion of confidence in yourself can be a good thing so long as you are aware of what you're doing.  The quarterback needs to understand that he's just using a trick to pump up his performance. Otherwise he'd feel like a failure for completing only half of his passes.

Confidence is an illusion, but a useful one.
Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +73
  • Print
  • Share
  • Share:


Sort By:
Jan 24, 2011
Jumper23: You are so right! God, why didn't I think of that? ;)
Jan 24, 2011
Holy crud, you are so right. But if I picture myself succeeding, then chastise myself for picturing something impossible, and end up doing it wrong half the time, I still feel like a failure. Even though I know that confidence is an illusion. What's up with that? How can I fix that?
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 10, 2011
Confidence isn't an illusion, and the arena where is operates is not on a specific tasks, but in a general approach.

I thought I was just the same as other kids, because there were times that I felt inadequate and useless and stupid. I would not have said I was confident at all. About 20 years later I realised there is a fundamental difference in how I approach new things. On most tasks I begin with the idea that with enough time and effort I will get it right. What changes in the amount of time and effort I suspect it will require. I'm usually accurate on the pessimistic side - most things turn out to be easier than I expected. Although it rarely occurs to me that it can't be done, I may decide I am not prepared to put in the effort that I anticipate it will take to be any good at it. When I do decide to take on something - I don't give up, I just keep plugging away and sooner or later it comes right.

To me this seems normal, but I have realised that actually only a small percentage of people are like this. Many many people start with the idea they they are NOT going to be able to do something. Perhaps they just know themselves. But often they give up after an hour or two. They never quite try, because it doesn't seem worth the investment in ... passion. They don't try, so they fail, so they feel bad. And the next time a similar task arrive either they refuse to try and start with even less energy and commitment.

With confidence you might fail because you have the wrong body type, brain, education, skill, talent, whatever. But without confidence you will never make a serious attempt and you WILL fail.
Jan 9, 2011
Utter hogwash. Confidence is a mental state, not an actual "condition" as you suggest. It can exist and is real. Just because you declare it invalid, doesn't mean it is.

Same with willpower. You say people always follow their strongest impulse at any given time. Wrong. Some of us utilize willpower to GO THE OTHER WAY. I'm the guy who loves cupcakes the most, seriously. I don't allow myself to eat them very often. I love them when I do. That's the POINT of willpower. Why you can't see that is totally beyond me.

Jan 7, 2011
Dear Scott,

These remember me of what you wrote in the last chapter in "THE DILBERT FUTURE." It's a really interesting and inspiring chapter. It's mysterious, but I think it's very hard to find many to believe.

Intriguingly something you told about illusion and confidence in the last chapter in "THE DILBERT FUTURE" almost ten years ago was astonishingly exactly conceptually the same as what appeared in Rhonda Byrne's bestseller, "The Secret." However I think the bestseller was written in a very "induhvidual" way and I can't help thinking it's hilarious. Actually I don't think autosuggestion is also hilarious so I tried "the attraction rule" but I failed in person.

I don't know what is your opinion about the bestseller but I still enjoy the last chapter in "THE DILBERT FUTURE" very much. Hope that kind of subject matter would appear in your works either in a humorous style or a serious way.
Jan 5, 2011
It's fun to read and think about your post, then see the strip today reflecting your thinking. Thanks for letting us see the creative process in action!
Jan 5, 2011
All of life is an illusion but a useful one.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 5, 2011
I would define confidence as tolerance for risk, uncertainty or ambiguity. Case in point...

Not all engineers are capable of being designers and this is not necessarily correlated with technical ability. Design engineers are required to stand up in front of there their boss, their peers, customers, etc. at the intial planning stage of a development project and declare:

"I don't understand the problem yet, but I am going to solve it within the constraints of the schedule, the spec and the budget."

Of course this doesn't mean they will succeed. In fact, failure to meet all objectives is likely and expected. However, given two engineers with equal talent, experience and skill, one is willing and able to make this commitment, the other is not. What is the distinction between the two? I'll call it "confidence" for lack of a better label.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 5, 2011
I remember an interesting claim that I think was in Edward Deci's "Why people do what they do". It went along the lines of, "if a person has a sense of confidence in a task, they will do it well in front of a group, but if they lack confidence they will do the same task, on average, better, in isolation". Though I agree "confidence" may be an illusion it is nor more an illusion than any other social construction so it exists right up there with justice, love and taxes. The point of it being illusory is somewhat vacuous.
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 5, 2011
Scott, your example of alcohol is flawed. Yes, alcohol can give people the sensation of confidence independent of their actual ability to perform tasks but at the same time it diminishes that person's actual abilities. We don't have anything that can just give people the sensation of confidence with no side effects (that I know of).
Jan 5, 2011
Dear Scott

Did you not, some years ago, suggest in this blog that all you need in life is optimism?


Wasn't this insinuating that you can influence your reality yourself just by wanting it and believing it and working out, aka dreaming the American dream? And does this not contradict this present blog entry about confidence?

+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 5, 2011
Norman Vincent Peale would totally hate you.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 5, 2011
I think it was Plato who described the exact same problem with the definition of "courage". Is it courageous if you dare to take on an opponent regardless of your chances of winning?

You can however describe cowardness or lack of confidence pretty well: if you are aware of your own capabilities, and you know you could win, but you still walk away because you are lazy or afraid of the RISK of losing (you're never 100 % sure that you're going to win, even if you know your strength), then you are a coward.
Jan 5, 2011
A practical definition of will power for someone who doesn't believe in things like 'free will': having long-term desires that are stronger than your short-term desires. For example, if someone is hungry, and sees a delicious cake, but is trying to lose weight, then they might refuse to eat the cake because their long-term desire to stay thin is stronger than their immediate hunger. We can say this person has 'will power'. This isn't imaginary and can be measured (see, for example http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/18/090518fa_fact_lehrer ).
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 5, 2011
Actualy the guy who could resist eating cupcakes better is the guy who is able not to think about cupcakes better. Altough how much you like cupcakes and your hungriness problably are part of the problem also.

There's a very famous study about will power where they put a kid in a room with a marshmallow and then tell him that they are going out for a few minutes and if the kid does not it the marshmallow while they are out, they will give the kid 2 marshmallows. There are some pretty interesting and funny videos about that study:

+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 5, 2011
You are confusing between delusion and confidence OR you are re-defining confidence.
Jan 4, 2011
[link title="Mobile Phones Uk"]http://www.bestmobiledeals.org[/link]
Jan 4, 2011
[url=http://www.bestmobiledeals.org]Mobile Phones Uk[/url]
Jan 4, 2011
I appreciate your post. I am glad to find this post on a New Year. I like it. <a href=http://www.bestmobiledeals.org>Mobile Phones Uk</a>
Jan 4, 2011
The information here is very good. I also agree with you, confidence is very important thing for doing any work. I agree with your post. <a href="http://www.bestmobiledeals.org">Mobile Phones Uk</a>
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog