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."

Find out more

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


More on This Story

In today's Magazine


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 295.

    Instead of increasing the level, could we actually be lowering the standards?

  • rate this

    Comment number 294.

    There is nothing wrong with confidence as long as you can back it up. The people who come over as the big 'I am' & then fail to deliver are rightly regarded as nothing but frauds.
    If you are good at what you are confident in, then that inspires trust in your decisions & actions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 293.

    Confidence is the nice feeling you have before realising what is really going on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 292.

    I have been involved with what the article calls the Human Potential Movement for many years. There is an important distinction to be made about this work which is as popular as ever. Organisations like ISA and Landmark do promote confidence and self-esteem but it only works if people are honest with themselves. So, do aim high, do take bold steps but note the effect you have. Be authentic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 291.

    This kind of research is just another attempt to understand how humans behave and to categorise people like cattle on a farm.

    The test only provides two options to choose from which I think is not broad enough and sometimes forces you to choose one that does not necessarily represent your feelings.
    Every human has a different though process from the next, it is important we remember this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 290.

    Interesting. I wouldn't say I am far more intelligent than my peers or a highly confident person, quite the opposite actually. Yet I've been to a top 10 uni and graduated with a first and have managed to work for some interesting people. I think it all comes down to the amount of work you put in, less so the confidence you have.

  • rate this

    Comment number 289.

    Tony Blair.

    Enough said.

  • rate this

    Comment number 288.

    My son is really successful, but dresses so people underestimate him,he says he finds out more about people he deals with,and can make better judgments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 287.

    First, if your going to base your results about feelings of self-importance, don't EVER use the US. They are THE most arrogant and narcissistic people on the planet so the results are WAY above average.
    Second, there is a very fine line between confidence and arrogance. You need to be confident enough to push forward and to make your point but arrogance will hinder you

  • rate this

    Comment number 286.

    Is this perhaps a symptom of the democratic mind set... for years people have watched presidents and senators elected not for their aptitude, but for their popularity... for years TV and movies have linked self confidence to popularity in high school settings... too bad, real life isn't an American high school drama!

  • rate this

    Comment number 285.

    Don't mind confidence in anyone however all the americanisms spouting from the 'up and coming' managers of today is nauseating, however they will learn from experience that plain talking is what everyone understands.

  • rate this

    Comment number 284.

    It would be interesting to know whether the students are asked to rate themselves in relation to other university students or against the general population. Given that most people in the USA have a high school rather than university education, students might rate themselves higher against a group of mostly high school educated people than university educated students. What is the context?

  • rate this

    Comment number 283.

    @244.Nick Fury - There are no less competent people now than there have been "in yesteryear" either in number or proportion. The difference is that the world is no longer run by people it's run by corporations, whose officers have a duty to maximise profits. There is no moral imperative (not even the family's good name) and they actively promote the dishonest, the incompetent and the sociopathic

  • rate this

    Comment number 282.

    Yes, too much now. Even good, well educated Uni applicants are encouraged by the schools to have no understated modesty at all, even in their Personal Statements. Confidence is good, what you can offer is good, but it has all become rather close to bragging about what they think they are already...

  • rate this

    Comment number 281.

    I doubt it, or at least, not on it's own. Hard work and self-awareness are probably far more effective.

    The problem with confidence is that it's very easily misplaced, or even unjustified. Being aware of your capabilities and limits is much more useful, in my opinion.

    Simply 'believing in yourself' to the degree where the world suddenly becomes your oyster is self-delusion and is best avoided.

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

    My experience is that rock solid self belief is an absolute necessity. The general population will constantly bombard you with the idea that you are worthless with the aim of reducing your worth in order to abuse you more easily.

    Only when you evaluate your worth independently and DEMAND your full worth will you actually get it. Squeaky wheel gets the grease.

  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    Vanity is a perennial problem. In his poem, To a Louse, on Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet in Church, written in 1786, Robert Burns implored thus:

    O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as ithers see us!
    It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
    An' foolish notion:
    What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
    An' ev'n devotion!

    227 years later, his words are even more apposite.

  • rate this

    Comment number 278.

    Nothing succeeds like a toothless budgie.

  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    I always fall foul of people like this as they are nothing but poseurs.

    There is only one criterion for considering yourself better than others and that is in your working skills. It is often asserted these days that the average is the best. It is all very well selling yourself but do you have the substance to back it up? These folk are just flash harries.

    No wonder the world is in such a mess.

  • Comment number 276.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


Page 11 of 25



  • Peaky Blinders publicity shotBrum do

    Why is the Birmingham accent so difficult to mimic?

  • Oliver CromwellA brief history

    The 900-year-story behind the creation of a UK parliament

  • Image of Ankor Wat using lidarJungle Atlantis

    How lasers have revealed an ancient city beneath the forest

  • Tesco signBest before?

    Has Tesco passed its sell-by date, asks Richard Anderson

  • Agents with the US Secret Service, such as this one, are responsible for guarding the presidentHard at work

    White House break-in adds to Secret Service woes

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.