You Can Train Your Brain to Be Just Confident Enough

Too much can bite you in the ass, psychologists say.
March 12, 2018, 10:07pm

When I first started my career as a child and adolescent psychologist at age 21, I was fortunate enough to learn the ropes in the hands of a strong mentor, someone who taught by example and provided me with valuable insight. I’ve always been a quick learner—or thought of myself as one—and this instance was no exception. I was eager to learn as much as possible, and the more I learned, the more confident I was about my skills and the profession I had chosen. But that confidence quickly turned into arrogance, clouding my judgement and making me more prone to error.

During my first month of working as her assistant, my mentor was running late for a session and told me to inform the parents. Happily levitating in my little bubble of overconfidence, I told her that I could start with the patient until she arrived. She seemed skeptical, but she agreed. Long story short, my boss came into the session, watched me for a bit, and eventually took over. Later, when she asked me how I think I did, I responded that I’d done well (even though, deep down, I actually thought I had rocked it). She then proceeded to point out all the things I had actually done wrong, including my competitive behavior—a big no-no in child therapy. I was unshakably certain that the small portion of knowledge I’d acquired during that month had given me all the necessary skills to be a therapist. I got knocked down a peg or two that day, and for good reason.

Turns out, it’s not uncommon for beginners to experience this kind of overconfidence. In fact, a recent small study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, explains the premise of the “beginner’s bubble” I had experienced. Carmen Sánchez and David Dunning, the study’s researchers, had forty participants conduct a series of tasks after just a they learned just a little about them. Dunning and Sánchez concluded that “although beginners did not start out overconfident in their judgments, they rapidly surged to a ‘beginner’s bubble’ of overconfidence. This bubble was traced to exuberant and error-filled theorizing about how to approach the task formed after just a few learning experiences.”

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The beginner’s bubble can relate to people who begin their career by being quite cautious in their decisions, but that they quickly become too confident for their own good before going through “a ‘correction’ phase in which confidence flattens while performance continues to improve.” In simpler terms: Beginners often start off naïve and blissfully unaware of how unskilled they are. However, with just a little learning, they develop an overconfidence—even a smugness—that leaves them vulnerable to make more mistakes down the road.

But what exactly marks the difference between confidence—which everyone needs in order to succeed at anything—and overconfidence? How do we acknowledge when we've developed mastery, but still continue to have a learner’s mindset?

“Confidence [occurs] when we develop an idea about something. It doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong—we are developing something,” Sánchez says, “but, when we aren’t prone or open to changing that idea, that’s when it becomes overconfidence.” In their study, they concluded that a little learning can people overrating their abilities—a stereotype that’s often attributed to millennials.

Millennials are often defined as the “me, me, me generation,” and are accused of being more narcissistic and more privileged than previous generations. Sánchez, however, doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t know if I believe that millennials are more overconfident than Baby Boomers, but it’s very possible that Baby Boomers were this overconfident when they were young, too. The difference is that we are paying closer attention to this generation,” she says. And they’re paying closer attention to each other; social media is after all, just a tool to reveal every single detail of our lives.

I struggle with accepting the claims of narcissism imposed on my generation. It seems too broad of an assumption. Social media is narcissistic by nature. But the difference between narcissism and confidence involves a person’s self-worth. “Overconfidence is the genuine feeling that you are better or know more than others, whereas narcissism is a defense against a quite fragile self-esteem,” says Jordan Wright, a professor of counseling psychology at NYU Steinhardt, as well as a clinical psychologist who works closely with millennials in the private practice.

In order to be good at what we do (and keep getting better), we need a realistic appraisal system. "Self-reflection is one of the things we can do to beat overconfidence,” Wright says. He recommends checking successes and working backwards from that point. “We tend to do that with failures, asking ourselves, ‘what did I do that lead to this unfortunate consequence?’ And we tend to trip on successes all the time, but the moment we look back on this chain of events and allow ourselves to be curious and question how we could’ve done things better, we can break out of that beginner’s bubble,” Wright says.

Growth mindset, a term coined by social psychologist Carol Dweck, encompasses precisely that. It’s the belief that the brain is a muscle that can be trained, and intelligence, rather than being a fixed concept, is something that we can develop. People who adopt a growth mindset—in their careers and even in their personal lives—embrace challenges, see effort as the path to mastery, persist in the face of setbacks, and learn from criticism.

When we continue to use a growth mindset, regardless of our chronological age, we are adopting a stance of development,” Sanchez says. And the only way of growing, is putting yourself out there and developing ideas. But, at the same time, reach out to others to modify and improve your ideas, and—as Wright mentions—during every moment in that chain of events, question your actions and your process.

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