Are you Confident Enough?


There’s a fascinating new study from Carnegie Mellon which shows that people prefer confidence over expertise:

The research, by Don Moore of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, shows that we prefer advice from a confident source, even to the point that we are willing to forgive a poor track record. Moore argues that in competitive situations, this can drive those offering advice to increasingly exaggerate how sure they are. And it spells bad news for scientists who try to be honest about gaps in their knowledge

It’s yet another example, why it is important to have and display self-confidence. Even if you don’t know what you’re talking about, people will trust you more if you are sure that you’re correct.

I’ve seen often seen this effect in business situations where a self-confident hard-driving executive can change the direction of a project just because they are absolutely sure they know the right way to do things. Even if there are other team members who have the real expertise on the project, they get overruled and steamrolled by the confident folks.

There is a classic phrase that applies here which states that leadership is 20% given and 80% taken. In other words, you have to have the necessary confidence to really take on the leadership role. Let me frame this another way, could you imagine going to see a surgeon who is not confident in his abilities? Ironically, most people would probably choose a highly confident surgeon over one who is an expert but cites all the things that could go wrong.

The original article cites another realistic example of a reluctant expert:

With complex but politicized subjects such as global warming, for example, scientific experts who stress uncertainties lose out to activists or lobbyists with a more emphatic message.

So it isn’t the people who are correct that win the hearts of the public, it’s the people who have the most confident message. That’s slightly scary, but it’s true. You don’t connect with people from the head – you connect from the heart.

That was a large part of the takeaway message from the excellent book Made To Stick. They emphasized that to connect with people, you can’t cite statistics, instead you need to focus on human stories. I’m reminded of the debates between Bush and Gore where Gore cited so many statistics that he lost the heart of the viewer while Bush’s next-door neighbor confidence won the day.

The article closes by stating how important this concept is for people who sell their advice or consulting services. People will more likely buy from you if you are confident. But what if you’re not confident enough? Are there ways to improve your confidence? Here are some excellent techniques to improve confidence:

  • Act As-If: Think about what a confident person would do in the same situation? How would they feel and what would they say? Just thinking about these questions forces you to step into a more confident state. It’s like how thinking about vacations or your kids makes you happy. My wife used this technique to great success when skydiving.
  • You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take: This is a FANTASTIC Wayne Gretzky quote. You may lose out on some of the chances you take, but if you take no chances you’ll never succeed. So be confident that while you might fail this time, it’s just part of the process. You have to get 100 “no”s before you get a “yes”.
  • What’s the worst that could happen?: People are often afraid to speak up or take action because they are worried about the consequences, but the consequences are often much less severe than people imagine them in their head. The worst thing is usually that someone will reject you in some way. As long as no long-term damage will be done, the up-side nearly always outweighs the downside.


“Who has confidence in himself will gain the confidence of others.”

-Leib Lazarow