Confidence: What it is, how to get it

We're going to make sure this post is different, at least in part, from last week's post on impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome isn't only about confidence, after all, and, let's face it, we all know someone who might suffer from maybe a little too much confidence.

Hold my beer.

Dating back to around the year 1400, the word confidence began only meaning trust in others, and over the next 150 years or so, came to include belief in oneself.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that deals with metacognition. In Creativity, Elkhonon Goldberg provides some information about this.

First off, the prefrontal cortex developed late in evolution — in fact, he says, it might be the piece of the brain that helped separate Homo sapiens from earlier hominids. It takes a long time to mature, often until we're in our early- to mid-30s.

We used to think (until fairly recently, actually), that the prefrontal cortex didn't do much. In fact, frontal lobotomies, which were common until the 1960s, basically severed the prefrontal cortex's connection to the rest of the brain.

If you think of all the bits of information you know or remember as Lego blocks, writes Goldberg, it is the job of the prefrontal cortex to arrange, sort, disarrange, and reassemble the blocks. That's what metacognition is.

Andrew Luttrell, et al., did a review of literature surrounding metacognitive confidence. What they found was that people often confused confidence in their memories, choices and judgments with effort and ease.

In other words, people would say they were confident if the cognitive task they were given — such as remembering a list or making a decision — was easy or didn't take much effort. If it was difficult, they reported lower confidence, even if the task was within their expertise.

Some scientists point to a combination of systems when it comes to confidence-eroding self-criticism:

The "drive" system, which works on dopamine (you might remember this is the happiness chemical that gets triggered when we get more likes on Facebook, for example). Linked to self-esteem, when everything's good with this system, we go out chasing resources, education, mates, and whatever else. When we're not getting our dopamine hit, we're stagnating (or worse, beating ourselves up).

Threat-protection. Our fight-flight system basically tells us to shut down and slink off when we're criticizing ourselves or taking it from someone else.

Mammalian care-giving system: This runs on oxytocin and our internal opiate system (again, refer back to this post for a review of our happiness chemicals). This is sort of the system you want driving you in times of criticism, whether from without or within — it can kind of give you a hug and get you headed back on with your day.


Let's talk about getting more confident, then. While it's possible to increase confidence using artificial intelligence and brain imaging, let's look how we can do that with less machinery.

Suparna Malhotra offers up a chemical combination we'll recognize from our happiness studies: dopamine, oxytocin, seratonin and endorphins. Remember we don't have to wait for these things; we can boost them with things like achieving small milestones (dopamine), connecting to our friends and family (oxytocin), keeping up our gut health (seratonin) and rigorous exercise (endorphins).

Positive thinking and mastery are a couple of things we can do to boost confidence. Positive thinking is something we can train via any number of ways, including, for example, meditation. Mastery? That's just practice — our work, our hobbies, or anything else we just want to get good at.

Diane DiResta specifically addresses public speaking, but you can use her breathing technique to boost confidence across realms:

The secret is to exhale longer than you inhale. For example, inhale to the count of 4 and then exhale to the count of 8. Do this several times until you feel a calming effect. If you don't have good breath support, then take in fewer breaths. Strategic breathing is the key. Slow down the breath. If this appears challenging, try exhaling through a straw.

One study found that a financial reward will help with confidence.

If you're looking to be a leader, you might take a look at the people around you: surround yourself with people who lift you up and tell the haters to get lost.


There's a whole U.S. coaching institute based around confidence. But you don't have to hire a coach to take advantage of it. They have a research library with links, reports and book recommendations (some of which you can get from your own local library, should you not wish to buy them).

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