Does confidence really breed success?

A composite image showing (clockwise):  A woman powdering her face, a woman applying red lipstick, a woman looking at her own reflection in a window, a man pulling his muscles and a man wearing sunglasses with his collar turned up. All images THINKSTOCK

Research suggests that more and more American university students think they are something special. High self-esteem is generally regarded as a good thing - but could too much of it actually make you less successful?

About nine million young people have filled out the American Freshman Survey, since it began in 1966.

It asks students to rate how they measure up to their peers in a number of basic skills areas - and over the past four decades, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of students who describe themselves as being "above average" for academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability and self-confidence.

This was revealed in a new analysis of the survey data, by US psychologist Jean Twenge and colleagues.

Graphic showing how the the percentage of American students rating themselves as "above average" has gone up. Measures shown: Drive to achieve, social self-confidence, intellectual self-confidence, leadership ability and writing ability

Self-appraisals of traits that are less individualistic - such as co-operativeness, understanding others and spirituality - saw little change, or a decrease, over the same period.

Self-esteem and confidence

Psychologists rarely use the word confidence. They have separate measures for:

  • self-esteem - the value people place on themselves
  • narcissism - definitions vary, but essentially a negative, destructive form of high self-esteem
  • self-efficacy - the ability to achieve personal goals

Twenge adds that while the Freshman Survey shows that students are increasingly likely to label themselves as gifted in writing ability, objective test scores indicate that actual writing ability has gone down since the 1960s.

And while in the late 1980s, almost half of students said they studied for six or more hours a week, the figure was little over a third by 2009 - a fact that sits rather oddly, given there has been a rise in students' self-proclaimed drive to succeed during the same period.

Another study by Twenge suggested there has been a 30% tilt towards narcissistic attitudes in US students since 1979.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines narcissism as: "Excessive self-love or vanity; self-admiration, self-centredness."

"Our culture used to encourage modesty and humility and not bragging about yourself," says Twenge. "It was considered a bad thing to be seen as conceited or full of yourself."

The Freshman Survey

Three female students
  • A nationally representative sample of first-year college and university students in the US
  • Conducted every year since 1966
  • Questions on a range of topics - including values, financial situation, and expectations of college

Not everyone with high self-esteem is a narcissist. Some positive views of the self may be harmless and in fact quite justified.

But one in four recent students responded to a questionnaire, the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, in a way which leaned towards narcissistic views of the self.

Though some have argued that narcissism is an essential trait, Twenge and her colleagues see it as negative and destructive.

In The Narcissism Epidemic, co-written with Keith Campbell, Twenge blames the growth of narcissistic attitudes on a range of trends - including parenting styles, celebrity culture, social media and access to easy credit, which allows people to appear more successful than they are.

"What's really become prevalent over the last two decades is the idea that being highly self-confident - loving yourself, believing in yourself - is the key to success.

"Now the interesting thing about that belief is it's widely held, it's very deeply held, and it's also untrue."

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This bewitching idea - that people's lives will improve with their self-esteem - led to what came to be known as The Self-Esteem Movement.

Legions of self-help books have propagated the idea that we each have it within us to achieve great things - we just need to be more confident.

Over 15,000 journal articles have examined the links between high self-esteem and measurable outcomes in real life, such as educational achievement, job opportunities, popularity, health, happiness and adherence to laws and social codes.

Yet there is very little evidence that raising self-esteem leads to tangible, positive outcomes.

"If there is any effect at all, it is quite small," says Roy Baumeister of Florida State University. He was the lead author of a 2003 paper that scrutinised dozens of self-esteem studies.

All about me, me, me...

  • In a recent paper Jean Twenge examined changes in pronoun use in American books published between 1960 and 2008, using the Google Books ngram database
  • She found that first person plural pronouns (we, us our etc.) decreased in use by 10% while first person singular pronouns (I, me, my etc.) increased in use by 42%

He found that although high self-esteem frequently had a positive correlation with success, the direction of causation was often unclear. For example, are high marks awarded to people with high self-esteem or does getting high marks engender high self-esteem?

And a third variable can influence both self-esteem and the positive outcome.

"Coming from a good family might lead to both high self-esteem and personal success," says Baumeister.

"Self-control is much more powerful and well-supported as a cause of personal success. Despite my years invested in research on self-esteem, I reluctantly advise people to forget about it."

Am I a narcissist?

Close-up of a woman wearing red lipstick

The Narcissistic Personality Inventory asks 40 questions, then ranks you on a narcissism scale

This doesn't mean that under-confident people will be more successful in school, in their careers or in sport.

"You need to believe that you can go out and do something but that's not the same as thinking that you're great," says Twenge. She gives the example of a swimmer attempting to learn a turn - this person needs to believe that they can acquire that skill, but a belief that they are already a great swimmer does not help.

Forsyth and Kerr studied the effect of positive feedback on university students who had received low grades (C, D, E and F). They found that the weaker students actually performed worse if they received encouragement aimed at boosting their self-worth.

"An intervention that encourages [students] to feel good about themselves, regardless of work, may remove the reason to work hard," writes Baumeister.

So do young people think they are better than they are?

If they are, perhaps the appropriate response is not condemnation but pity.

The narcissists described by Twenge and Campbell are often outwardly charming and charismatic. They find it easy to start relationships and have more confidence socially and in job interviews. Yet their prognosis is not good.

How self-esteem become a movement

Werner Erhard
  • The Self-Esteem Movement is said to have its roots in the civil rights movement, which promoted group solidarity - but also the rights of individuals to be who they want
  • A series of seminars were held in the 1960s on achieving happiness and fulfilment by tapping inner potential - it was called The Human Potential Movement
  • First popular book on self-esteem published in 1969 - The Psychology of Self-Esteem by psychologist Nathaniel Branden
  • Werner Erhard (above) held sessions aimed at boosting self-esteem in US prisons in the 1970s - there were similar programmes in the 1980s to try to reduce teen pregnancy rates and crime
  • Interest is still high - there were more than 40,000 articles about self-esteem in newspapers and magazines between 2002 and 2007

"In the long-term, what tends to happen is that narcissistic people mess up their relationships, at home and at work," says Twenge.

Narcissists may say all the right things but their actions eventually reveal them to be self-serving.

As for the narcissists themselves, it often not until middle age that they notice their life has been marked by an unusual number of failed relationships.

But it's not something that is easy to fix - narcissists are notorious for dropping out of therapy.

"It's a personality trait," says Twenge. "It's by definition very difficult to change. It's rooted in genetics and early environment and culture and things that aren't all that malleable."

Things also don't look good for the many young people who - although not classed as narcissists - have a disproportionately positive self-view.

A 2006 study led by John Reynolds of Florida State University found that students are increasingly ambitious, but also increasingly unrealistic in their expectations, creating what he calls "ambition inflation".

"Since the 1960s and 1970s, when those expectations started to grow, there's been an increase in anxiety and depression," says Twenge.

"There's going to be a lot more people who don't reach their goals."

Jean Twenge spoke to Health Check on the BBC World Service. You can listen to the programme or download the Health Check podcast.

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook


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  • rate this

    Comment number 275.

    Perhaps this is an evolutionary response to modern life. We live in a world of big, complex organisations, in which the objective measurement of an individual's contribution is very difficult. A person's progress can therefore depend more on subjective perceptions than on actual abilities.

    So giving an impression of brilliance may serve you better than actually being brilliant....

  • rate this

    Comment number 274.

    Locally in Sussex, the one reason I hear more than any other, for paying for private education rather than state, is that parents hope that their children will gain confidence.

    Public-speaking and leadership skills are so important. I am amazed how far people with confidence progress in their career. I often had far better qualifications, but lacked the confidence to achieve what I wanted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 273.


    Read your first sentence again. It's missing a comma or a word.

    There should be commas either side of "and other worthless rubbish that is stated on their CV". "that is" is also redundant.

    Don't ever comment on a typo on the internet again. It makes you look like a very foolish, over confident, upper manager.

  • rate this

    Comment number 272.

    Overweening confidence in their own abilities is a characteristic of youth.
    More disturbing is their sense of entitlement without an understanding of the hard work and application required to be an 'overnight' success.

  • rate this

    Comment number 271.

    @ 232

    Maybe if your brilliant generation hadn't ruined the world's economy we wouldn't have to sit around and struggle to get even 'boring' jobs.

    I wonder if that's what you'd wish on your own kids, or is it just everybody else that should settle for an fulfilled life in a job they dislike just to make up the numbers?

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    It doesn't help when the media crams mediocre celebrities in everyone's face together with their biographies at ages when life has only just begun or X-factor offers fame and fortune to deluded kids that need a lesson in how hard work produces results not just self centered me isms. The World owes no one a living.

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    Confidence is the curse of our age. Confidence is rewarded far more than ability. Confident political leaders assert themselves into power and the state of the world suggests that the wrong people are in charege. So much for confidence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.

    To answer the point; 'maybe'.

    If i'm confident i'll drive home tonight without a crash...fairly sure that will succeed.
    If i'm confident i'll survive a jump off a 12-story building...fairly sure gravity and the pavement will explain to me the meaning of failure...

    Many 'confident', 'successful' people are metaphorically in the second scenario; they just haven't hit the ground yet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 267.

    We had this student who was selected for a prestigious PhD scholarship based on his impressive CV. He thought he was amazing and that he wouldn't need to do any real work to earn the PhD. He was so good he only needed to turn up to do research for 2 hours a day. Unsurprisingly 5 years later he is now just another graduate without a PhD who works full time at the student bar.

  • rate this

    Comment number 266.

    So what if people believe they're never likely to fail? Let them learn the truth the hard way. While arrogance and a sense of entitlement are both hugely annoying traits (and sadly are a part of life these days, as flaunted by nobody tv 'personalities'), it's more likely that people who succeed will owe much of their success to actual hard work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 265.

    254. jayruth
    in my experience only 10% of people actually have what it takes to lead (if that)."

    Well, actually the question was 'do you have *above-average* leadership ability' - so, logically about 50% of people should be able to accurately say 'yes' to that.

    On the graph, the 'accurate' level would be 50% on all lines - interestingly people are still underestimating themselves on some topics

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    There is a very real difference between Confidence, and Arrogance.
    Confidence means you are happy with your abilities (not purely thinking they are the best!) and know that you can achieve.
    Arrogance is thinking you are/know best, and show no respect for others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 263.

    There are 3 parts to the completion of any act. Ability (skills and training), Means (hardware & finance) and the Will (includes self esteem).This has also been reinforced by a culture that actively rewards idiocy and vacuity. Fame has become an end in itself rather than a byproduct of doing something meaningful. Paris Hilton epitomises this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 262.

    It was the young 20 something narcissists at JP Morgan that created the CDO's that caused the financial crisis, then the rest of the narcissists in other banks emulated and adapted their own derivatives.

    It is endemic throughout Investment Bankers, they believe they are the best because they think their paypacket is a reflection of IQ.

    How utterley stupid and wrong they are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    Just now
    People who are genuinely capable are extremely rare at the top in any profession I have seen.The people who ARE successful are politically aware and socially skilled at manipulation, most of whom are horrendously incompetent.

    This is by far the best and truest comment ever said on here. I 100% agree with everything said.

  • rate this

    Comment number 260.


    As management that is one of the biggest problems when it comes to applicants for jobs. A lack of basic reading and writing skills is the norm, and this is from university graduates! However, most are arrogant enough to believe that their general 'people skills' and other worthless rubbish that is stated on their CV is enough to cover their lack of ability concerning basic skills.

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    The colonials have long suffered under a delusional superiority complex. I blame their Hollywood movies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    We should be clear that these terms mean different things to different people ("confidence', "self worth" "self esteem" etc). When we have a sense of unconditional self worth it allows us to be honest and compassionate toward ourselves and others, and we are able to motivate ourselves in a healthy, joyful way without the need to inflate our abilities or minimise our weaknesses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    195. fitzj
    I just took the test, I scored a massive 1"

    Ha - I beat you, I got 2 !

    But, I'm happy, I've run my own business for 16 years and have a great family and friends, so I'd say I've been successful

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    If you don't know how fail then you don't know how to succeed. You need to be able to pick yourself up after, and learn from, your mistakes. Teaching kids they cannot fail dooms them to fail.


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