5 Science-Based Secrets for Building Confidence

On many fronts, confidence is vital to well-being. The extent to which we believe in our abilities influences our success in every domain, from classroom to boardroom and from first date to first down. Not to mention that greater confidence lowers stress, leads to better health, and drives stronger relationships. But how exactly do we go about developing confidence, particularly in areas of our lives that have historically been challenging?

Encouragement Matters

First, we need to understand a bit more about the nature of confidence. Research confirms what we’ve all experienced—that feelings of confidence stem from the validation we receive both from ourselves and from others. In one study, Ohio State psychologists asked college advisors to introduce their students to an enticing graduate program and offer them an application. The advisors offered the students different levels of encouragement, ranging from none to telling students they were a “perfect fit” for the program. Not surprisingly, the students receiving the most encouragement were most likely to apply despite being similarly qualified.

Confidence-Boosting Takeaway: When we surround ourselves with an encouraging support network, we bolster our confidence, which allows us to take appropriate risks to succeed.

No Place for Self-Deprecation

Our internal perceptions of confidence are even more robust.

Cornell psychologist David Dunning teamed with his graduate student Justin Kruger to study the degree to which a person’s competence influences his confidence for a given skill, such as logical reasoning or grammar. They found that when we're highly skilled at a task, we often wrongly assume that the task must be similarly easy for others and we underrate our confidence.

Think about a unique skill or task that you practice regularly, maybe accounting or baking, and imagine what it would be like for someone who had no experience at that task trying to manage a balance sheet or whip up a soufflé. They might feel confident despite their inexperience. But what if you could then teach them how to do it properly? Those individuals, having watched you succeed with ease, would likely be much better at assessing your abilities than you would.

Confidence-Boosting Takeaway: If you’ve been at least moderately successful at a task but you are still doubting yourself, seeking the feedback of others might help give you a more accurate, confidence-boosting view of yourself.

Fight the Stereotypes

Other research looks more deeply at how confidence is effected by comparing oneself to others. One of the most striking examples is that of stereotype threat, when individuals feel at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about their social group. The original studies observed that when African-American students were primed to think about their race and then take a standardized test, they performed more poorly than white students.

But when race was not emphasized, there were no differences in performance across groups. Similar effects have been shown in many other arenas including white men in sports and women in negotiations.

Confidence-Boosting Takeaway: When faced with stereotype threat, it may help to think of a person who also is in your social group but who has succeeded at your task. For example, if you're a woman walking into a negotiation, boost your confidence by reminding yourself of a strong female role model who negotiates confidently.

From the Outside In

Recent research shows that confidence not only effects our physical presence—our posture and how much space we command—but that this relationship works in reverse as well. Amy Cuddy’s extremely popular Ted talk explains the benefits of adopting a power pose, such as standing tall with your hands on your hips or stretching your arms in the air like a victorious athlete. Power posing can increase testosterone—which may be linked to confidence—and lower the stress-hormone cortisol.

Confidence-Boosting Takeaway: Practice a power pose or a strong posture for a few minutes a day while also focusing on your strengths—research shows you'll be more likely to see those thoughts as true. Think about what makes you great and practice embodying those traits as you stand tall!

Confidence Comes At the End

Everyone's confidence wavers at times, but when we’ve proven our expertise to ourselves through repeated successes, it seems easier to maintain. Psychologist Albert Bandura first proposed the notion of self-efficacy, a concept related to confidence, but as it relates to a particular activity. When we have a high level of self-efficacy for a task, such as public speaking, we’re much more likely to set greater task-related goals, to lean in to opportunities to perform it, and to listen to feedback about ourselves. The funny thing about self-efficacy, however, is that it is derived predominantly from mastery.

That means that the best step we can take towards feeling confident about a particular task is to watch ourselves succeed at it. If you’re like me, this advice feels backwards. When I’m about to attempt a task at which I lack confidence, it’s the sense of self-efficacy itself I’m looking for in that moment to propel me through. Ironically, self-efficacy is instead what we earn on the other side.

Confidence-Boosting Takeaway: If there’s an area where you’d like to increase confidence, such as public speaking, know that taking action is a prerequisite and find opportunities to practice. Be kind to yourself by starting with small, manageable steps first. If you have a specific talk to practice, start in the mirror before asking a trusted friend for feedback. As you watch yourself succeed more, your confidence will naturally increase and allow you to take larger risks as you progress.

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