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The science of bullshit Never believe an expert who thinks that 'confidence is everything'

The King of Confidence. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

The King of Confidence. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)


June 1, 2021   7 mins

A thought experiment. You take 5,000 smokers who are trying to quit, and you ask them: “On a scale of one to 10, how confident are you that you will be able to quit in the next six months?” Then you return to them six months later, and you see how many of them have successfully quit. (By some metric, say whether they’ve had a cigarette in the last month.)

Let’s say that you see that people who rate themselves highly on the scale are more likely to have quit than people who don’t. For example, people who gave themselves an eight or higher were twice as likely to be smoke-free after six months than people who gave themselves a four or below.

What’s your conclusion here? If you are Professor Ian Robertson, a clinical psychologist and author of How Confidence Works: The new science of self-belief, why some people learn it and others don’t, then the conclusion is obvious. Confidence helps you quit. If you believe — if you truly believe — that you have the willpower to quit, then you can do it! You have the “can happen” and the “can do” mentality, and that will drive you over the finish line!

If you’re anybody else, of course, you might point out that all this shows is that people can judge their own abilities quite well. I’m not confident in my ability to beat Magnus Carlsen at chess, and I expect Carlsen would be very confident in his ability to beat me. If we then played and I lost, I don’t think that would be because I was inadequately confident. In the same vein, if I know I’ve got a really bad 40-a-day habit and shitty willpower, then I’ll probably judge that I won’t be able to quit, and I may well be right. But it’s not that I’ll fail because I’m not confident; I’m not confident because I rightly think I’ll fail.

I’ve made up the smoking example, but Robertson uses several similar ones. “Studies have shown,” he says, right at the start of the book, “that you will live longer after heart failure if your partner feels confident about your condition.” If you find the study (not studies) he’s referring to,1 you see that it does indeed find that heart disease patients are more likely to live longer if their spouses have high confidence that they will survive.

But
 if I were to develop heart disease tomorrow, and you were to ask my wife whether she thinks I’ll survive the next six months, her answer wouldn’t simply be a product of whether she’s a confident, happy-go-lucky sort of person. It would also be based on her assessment of my health, my ability to stick to exercise and diet regimes, whether or not I tend to stick my fingers in electrical sockets for fun. She might say: “My husband is relatively young, and reasonably fit, so that’s positive, but on the other side of the ledger he’s a lazy git and eats too many burgers, so overall I’ll give it 60%.”

(To be fair, the study tries to look out for this by controlling for disease severity. But I would imagine that spouses are better judges of a person’s overall health than a four-category NYHA classification.)

For Robertson, though, confidence is everything. It’s the most important thing in the world. And everywhere he looks, science backs this up. It’s astonishing. A Duke University study looking at twins found that if one member of a pair of twins assesses their family’s social status as lower, that twin will likely do worse in life: worse jobs, more crime, etc. For Robertson, “something happened during adolescence that made some of the twins feel that they had lower social status than their sibling. Once they felt that, their behaviour, mental health, education, job and optimism suffered accordingly.”

The possibility that the causal arrow points the other way – that when a twin’s life starts to go down the toilet, they start to assess their (and their family’s) status more negatively – simply does not occur to him.

There are dozens of things like this. People who are pessimistic die young, people who are less confident in their memory are more likely to get dementia, people who walk more slowly are less confident in their health and will therefore die young. The possibility that people are accurately judging their own health status is occasionally raised but then dismissed. (Sometimes the studies controlled for other possibilities, but did they control for enough?)

Which is a shame. There is a fascinating book to be written by someone with a bit more self-reflection — someone a bit less confident, perhaps, in their thesis. Robertson divides confidence into two constituent parts: a “can happen” attitude and a “can do” attitude. If we’re trying to lose weight, say, someone might tell us to eat a healthier diet and take more exercise.

If we believe that salad and jogging will have the desired effect – that we would, if we ate better and ran more, lose weight — then we have a “can happen” attitude. And if we believe that we are personally capable of eating better and running more, then we have a “can do” attitude. Confidence, he says, is a “bridge to the future”: it is our mind’s ability to visualise our ability to get from here, where we are, to there, where we want to be.

Robertson illustrates the idea with stories of CEOs and sportspeople and so on who have, as he says, this can happen/can do attitude, and how they therefore changed the world. 

But there’s another way of thinking about confidence: it’s just your brain predicting, given the information it has, how likely it is to succeed. You could imagine an AI that was built to perform some task, say image recognition. You train it on eleventy billion pictures of dogs and cats, and then you make it look at some other images of dogs and cats and say which ones are which. You feed it a thousand pictures and it gets 980 of them right.

Then you ask it (it’s also a natural-language AI) how confident it is that it will get the next one right. It says “98%.” Then it gets the next one wrong.

Why did it get the next one wrong? Is it because it wasn’t confident enough? No: it has correctly assessed that it will get it right 49 times out of 50. If the AI had said it was 99% confident, it would have been overconfident. The AI has learnt, from its experience of its own capabilities and the difficulty of the dog-cat-recognition task, that it gets it right 98% of the time.

And if the AI has to make some decisions based on its ability to tell a picture of a cat from a picture of a dog, it can only make those decisions rationally if it assesses its own skill accurately. If you offered it a bet at £1 to £25, it would be rational to take that bet; if you offered it a bet at £1 to £100, then it would not. Similarly, a human being asked “Can you quit smoking?” is making an assessment of his or her abilities, and will take action according to how likely he or she thinks they are to succeed.

Of course, you might say, AIs aren’t human. We do misjudge our own abilities, either overestimating or underestimating them, and it does feel from the inside as though confidence drives success as well as success driving confidence. And there might be some scientific evidence supporting that. This would have been the interesting book Robertson could have written: the book teasing out the difference between confidence-as-assessment-of-skill and confidence-as-motivation.

Unfortunately, Robertson’s actual book is, again, so confident in the importance of confidence that he overlooks the shakiness of the science he cites. I’ve written and read a lot about the “replication crisis” over the last few years, and you get a bit of a sense for the sort of psychology studies which will turn out to be garbage. And my alarm bells were ringing constantly as I read this book.

For one thing, it repeatedly mentions psychological findings, such as stereotype threat, social priming, impostor syndrome, the “hot hand” effect, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and growth mindset, which have variously either been debunked or at least need some sort of acknowledgment that they’re controversial. 

More generally, it regularly quotes studies which seemed odd — so I went and looked about two dozen of them up. Studies into things like whether wearing a lab coat makes you better at concentrating, or whether being told that you’re smarter makes your brain look different in an fMRI scanner. Time after time, it was an unpreregistered study looking at 27 undergraduates which barely reached statistical significance. I am, I’m afraid, extremely not confident that most of these studies would replicate (and several of them definitely have not).

I have three hypotheses for why Robertson, who as a neuroscientist and psychologist is presumably aware of the replication crisis, might overlook the shakiness of the studies supporting his thesis. One is charitable: the others less so.

The charitable explanation is that Robertson is a clinical psychologist. If this book were a book of robust science, it would be full of caveats and on-the-one-hand-on-the-others. But perhaps it’s not. Perhaps it’s a self-help book: “Get confident, stupid!” Robertson wants to get his readers to maximise their confidence, so he pushes its importance and overstates the effectiveness of various tricks to improve it. It is full of pretty common-sense advice (tell yourself you’re excited rather than anxious, etc); maybe he feels that’ll do more good if it’s backed up with neurobollocks about how it’s all to do with dopamine receptors in the ventral striatum or whatever.

The first less charitable explanation is that Robertson, like many other moderately famous psychologists, has his eye on the lucrative after-dinner speaking market, and the way to get on that is to say that This One Weird Trick is all you need to totally change your life, whether it’s growth mindset or “grit” or power posing or whatever. In this model, Robertson has decided that “confidence” is the new “positive psychology”, and he can get £10,000 a go for 45 minutes talking to postprandial advertising executives in a conference hall in the Runnymede Marriott.

The second less charitable explanation is 
 well. Robertson tells the story of Ally McLeod, who took Scotland to the World Cup in 1978, promising not only to win it but to retain it the next time around. Scotland were instead knocked out in the group stages . “Ally MacLeod was what is colloquially known as a bullshitter,” he says. My own understanding of “bullshit”, in the Harry Frankfurt sense, is speech in which the speaker doesn’t care whether he is telling the truth or not; but for Robertson, it’s essentially problematic overconfidence, misjudging your own expertise and abilities. It is possible that one or both of those two definitions might apply to this book.

But this book is what it is. One of Robertson’s key anecdotes is of Padraig Harrington, the golfer, having a moment of doubt while comfortably in the lead in the 2007 British Open, and then repeatedly whiffing his ball into a lake, almost throwing his lead away, and then getting his confidence back and going on to win. There’s a fascinating story there to be told — was the confidence (and its disappearance) a product of how well he was doing or wasn’t, or the other way around? Did they feed back into each other in a complex, self-reinforcing loop? And was that initial moment of doubt even real, or was it added into his mind with hindsight? (It’s not as if memory is infallible.) I would love to have read someone treating that complicated story with the subtlety it deserves.

But for Robertson, the story is simple. Harrington was confident, so he was winning; then he stopped being confident, so he stopped winning; then he got confident again, so he won. The end. Get confident, stupid.

FOOTNOTES
  1. Which is a pain in the arse to do, by the way, because he doesn’t use SODDING FOOTNOTES. Use footnotes! It’s fine! Readers don’t get derailed by little superscript numbers in the text!

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.

TomChivers

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

And I am ‘confident’ that the picture of Trump accompanying the article was chosen through a combination of click-bait, ignorance and TDS. After all, at least Trump has a track record of building hotels etc that justifies some kind of confidence. And had he been more ‘confident’ he might have stood for office 20 or so years ago when the chat show hosts such as Oprah were constantly encouraging him to do so.
Surely a better choice would have been a picture of David Cameron or one of the goons in Brussels, all of whom were ‘confident’ that the British would vote to remain in the EU. Or a picture of Hillary on the campaign trail in 2016. Or a picture of Guardiola, who was confident that his bizarre team selection would beat Chelsea the other night. On the other hand, I suppose all those examples might have disproved the message of the book.
I have no idea why Ally McLeod was referred to. He wasn’t so much confident as simply deluded – surely there is a big difference.
Whatever, i am confident that I will not be reading this book.

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
Peter Kriens
Peter Kriens
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I think the person that picked picture did not read the article? If Tom Chivers is correct, T.’s impressive confidence should be matched by his capability.

Which is somehow not the impression the photo editor wanted to give I expect.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Kriens

They want people to click on the article they think a picture of Trump helps them do that. It works seeing as we’re even talking about it in the comments.

jensonmckay
jensonmckay
3 years ago
Reply to  Jim Jones

i only wanted to read this article as it had trumps face on it haha, oh well i do live clickbait.

Ernest DuBrul
Ernest DuBrul
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Kriens
kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Kriens

He seems to be confusing confidence with a positive attitude. A person claiming they can fly a plane , when they actually have no licence, is not confident , they are crazy. If a person has a public job for example a doctor their attitude is going to effect the patient’s confidence in their ability. If the patient feels they are in ‘safe hands’ this will probably help their post-op recovery.However the first three letters of confident spell con & confidence tricksters do know how to persuade their victims they know what they are talking about-this does seem to apply to a lot of politicians.

Rob Alka
Rob Alka
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

I assume your referring to a person who has never flown a plane, not even in a simulator, as opposed to those who didn’t take the test or lost their licence on some administrative technicality. For them to attempt flying an aeroplane doesn’t make them crazy, just criminal.

David Jory
David Jory
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

See the Tweets of Biden and Harris for Memorial Day last weekend, and the video of Trump with the widow and son of a US Marine killed fighting for the US.
Who’s the better man, the current creepy President lauded and protected by the media, or the former President, excoriated by the media?

Terry M
Terry M
3 years ago
Reply to  David Jory

Trump is not an intrinsically evil person, despite media arguments to the contrary. He is, however, very confident, a braggadocio, and willing to bend the rules. His accomplishments in office were substantial – Operation Warp Speed, 3 ME peace treaties, corp tax reduction, regulation reduction, slowed illegal immigration, neutralized No Korea, legal reforms, reduced military involvements, etc. – although these were poo-poo’d by the inherently evil media. It’s an easy comparison to see that Trump is the better President. Too bad he had an insensitive manner of speaking/tweeting.

Christin
Christin
3 years ago
Reply to  Terry M

Indeed.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Terry M

Before 2016 Trump had never had political office. He runs for President the first time & wins. This is obviously going to be annoying to those who have tried several times unsuccessfully. His win showed two things-he is not a politician & presidency is a political office-immediately the whole political system hated him. Which revealed that any President has very little real power they are just a figure-head -the country is ruled by the civil service, so they have a similar system to that of Yes Minister.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
3 years ago
Reply to  Terry M

Trump never learned the politico’s method of speaking poll driven drivel talking points whilst doing exactly the opposite.

Rob Alka
Rob Alka
3 years ago
Reply to  Terry M

A rare treat, a rational summing up of Trump’s +’s & -‘s
With what I’m seeing with Biden, there will soon be bumper stickers saying “come back Trump, all is forgiven”
I

Vikram Sharma
Vikram Sharma
3 years ago

Economics and psychology have tried to turn themselves into “science” by application of increasingly complex mathematical equations to generate predictions when the entire foundation of applying Newtonian and mechanical causality to human behaviour is a flawed concept. Psychology experiments are considered proven at a p value of less than 0.05. Compare with the p value of the Einstein’s prediction that light will bend when passing by a massive object and you realise the shallowness of the claim that psychology is a science. Snake oil merchants selling their stuff with confidence. Once human beings turned to soothsayers to make sense of the dreads of life, now they turn to pop psychologists. One can confidently predict that there will always be a market for charlatans.

Stanley Beardshall
Stanley Beardshall
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

Don’t know any economists, but do know several psychologists – oddly they are all nuts!

Last edited 3 years ago by Stanley Beardshall
Jean Fothers
Jean Fothers
3 years ago

That is the reason that they, psychologists and psychiatrists are given a white coat. Just so we can know which one is the “doctor” and which is the patient.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Jean Fothers

My favorite psychologist is from the Book ‘Marching Morons’ where in the future the less bright have been the ones having all the children and the population are not very smart – and if needing some mental help you visit your local ‘Freud’, who wears a false beard and glasses and white coat. (the visit ritualized, women walks in his office and says the required intro: “Freud forgive, for I have a Neuroses’ to which he replies the standard “tut tut my girl, what seems to be the problem” (the Church has been replaced by cod-psychology)

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

I am fascinated by economics – my thoughtful post above ‘Awaiting for moderation’ as Unherd does if you have something to actually say which is real.

Basically I show two sides of the economy future from this mass psychosis of the response to c-19.

First I link to experts saying the money printed globally will bring on a great depression. Buy gold and commodity stock, and value investments to avoid the crash.

Then to an expert who says tech now is increasing production exponentially so Money printing of the Trillions is needed to stop the deflationary process of everything being produced for less $ every day.

One side says disaster, the other says paradise. Fredd y will not say which is looming….but he should as this is the biggest issue of all.

Susannah Baring Tait
Susannah Baring Tait
3 years ago

Funny you should say that. As a child I remember my doctor father returning home after having accompanied a consultant psychiatrist to see one of his patients. He told my mother and me how the psychiatrist kept slamming on the brakes and stopping the car dead. When he enquired what the problem was, he was told “The birds crossing the road . We can’t run over the birds!” Not a bird to be seen. Father reckoned it took a nut to recognise another.

Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

Yet again, absolutely right, Vikram! So often I read/hear of ‘studies’ or ‘research’ of this kind in the media, only to find that sample size was small, and/or moderator variables were not controlled, and/or the undemanding p-value you mention indicated a modest level of statistical ‘significance’ with little or no real meaning. As Chivers suggests, we need far more replications. In addition, it is a pity that soundly conducted studies showing NO statistical significance don’t get published. And, as you say, the attempt to dress up psychological experiments in scientific clothes is so often misleading.

David Redfern
David Redfern
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

It’s entirely credible that the Replication Crisis has been driven by Psychologists and their ilk.
In some ways, we ought to thank them.

John Lewis
John Lewis
3 years ago

A photo of President Trump – who is completely absent from the article.

I can only assume he still resides in the authors head (rent-free as the saying goes). See how easy it is to have hypotheses?

Joff Brown
Joff Brown
3 years ago
Reply to  John Lewis

It would be very unusual for an article writer to specify the accompanying picture.

Ronan Sleep
Ronan Sleep
3 years ago
Reply to  Joff Brown

But unherd is meant to be different, ?no?

David Jory
David Jory
3 years ago
Reply to  Ronan Sleep

Baaaaaaaahrely!

Ernest DuBrul
Ernest DuBrul
3 years ago
Reply to  John Lewis
John Lewis
John Lewis
3 years ago
Reply to  Ernest DuBrul

Thank you.

Certainly no projection in that article is there?

Last edited 3 years ago by John Lewis
Terry M
Terry M
3 years ago
Reply to  Ernest DuBrul

“When Trump says something like he’s just learned that Barack Obama ordered his phones wiretapped, he’s not really trying to persuade people that this is true. It’s a test to see who around him will debase themselves to repeat it blindly.”
But Trump was right in that Obama’s FBI was spying on his campaign. As he has been proven on many issues: Russia probe, Wuhan lab virus (always was a near certainty), Hunter Biden, etc.
He ought to look in the mirror as to who is trying to debase themselves to protect ‘the narrative.’
“But by filling the heads of his fans — and the media outlets they consume — with a steady diet of bullshit, Trump is nonetheless succeeding in endlessly reinscribing polarization in American politics, corroding America’s governing institutions, and poisoning civic life.”
This applies much more to Obama and Biden, whose lies – particularly about race – have had much greater negative consequences. See antifa, BLM, shootings of police officers, etc.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones
3 years ago
Reply to  Terry M

Do you understand the concept of bullshitting and how it differs from lying? Obama is the liar, Trump is the bullshitter.

Terry M
Terry M
3 years ago
Reply to  Jim Jones

Bullshit is often the rationale used to substantiate the lie, which is also bullshit.

David Redfern
David Redfern
3 years ago
Reply to  Terry M

You just made that bullshit up.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
3 years ago

‘I’ve written and read a lot about the “replication crisis” over the last few years, and you get a bit of a sense for the sort of psychology studies which will turn out to be garbage. And my alarm bells were ringing constantly as I read this book..’

Aha! You were confident that it was all going to be rubbish – and it was! So he was right all along….hang on tho….

George Bruce
George Bruce
3 years ago

Padraig Harrington, the golfer, having a moment of doubt while comfortably in the lead in the 2007 British Open, and then repeatedly whiffing his ball into a lake, almost throwing his lead away, and then getting his confidence back and going on to win. 

If Unherd starts having a golf column, I do not think employing Tom as the golf correspondent would be advisable. I do not follow golf closely these days, but I did know enough to think it unlikely that events had proceeded as above.
Four errors in this section, in my humble opinion, after investigation. Quite a lot for just part of one sentence!
i Whiffing (had to look it up) means missing the ball – it is onomatopoeia, the swishing sound as you miss. So one is unlikely to whiff a golf ball and send it into a lake.
ii It was in Scotland and the ball went into a burn, as we say up there. A burn is a stream, not a lake.(In fact there is only one lake in Scotland, but that is another story.)
iii To me repeatedly is not twice. If you say he failed repeatedly – nah, that is not just twice. Harrington put his ball in the lake – sorry, burn – twice.
iv He DID throw away the lead. It ended in a tie for first place.
So do not give up the day job, Tom!

Last edited 3 years ago by George Bruce
David Redfern
David Redfern
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

Excellent.

Chuck Burns
Chuck Burns
3 years ago

I think a good article. The picture of Trump hooked many into reading, looking for Trump to be trashed or complimented. Although he was never mentioned by name in the article he was in the mind of the reader through every paragraph, every sentence. Trump is an excellent example of positive reinforcement, goal oriented mental imagery, concentration under stress. As much as Donald Trump accomplished under continual assault by the Left, imagine what he could have done with the backing and support of the main stream media. As much as they threw at him they could not take him out. They even went to the lab to create a special virus for the occasion (poetic license). They failed again. He took away their pandemic by making a deal with Big Pharma. Even after the most lucrative deal in history, billions up front with no liability, Big Pharma stabbed Trump in the back. What finally got him was not the democrat pandemic that the democrats seized upon as “their opportunity”, but the most blatant and brazen Leftist, globalist, deep state, big tech, democrat “fortified” election process ever perpetrated against a free people. They installed the most popular president in the history of the world in the White House. A stumbling, mumbling, basement ridden Manchurian Candidate fool, who in his prime was mediocre and inarticulate. They tell us he got over 81 million votes! Now that was an exercise in brazen and blatant confidence! We have since learned that this “fortified” exercise in confidence has been going on for something like 20 years. Trumps crowning achievement will be the revelation of the “fortified” election process so we can get back to free and fair elections and reinstate the rule of law.

Neil Anthony
Neil Anthony
3 years ago
Reply to  Chuck Burns

Well put. Bravo!!!

David Redfern
David Redfern
3 years ago
Reply to  Chuck Burns

As far as I’m concerned, you have won the internet for the week!

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago

Universities are producing thousands of psychologists. There has to be something for them to do – the only solution is to keep rehashing old ideas to sell to new generations.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Yes, the endless production of psychologists is one of the great problems of our time. 6% of all students in the US are studying the subject, or some variation of it. Thus they need an epidemic of ‘mental ‘elf’ problems in order to drum up business. And, as Tim Dillon pointed out to Jordan Peterson recently, most of the psychologists he talks to are not people that he would trust to improve his wellbmeingin any way.

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Prince Hazzer will be ok then?..;)

Simon Baseley
Simon Baseley
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

The terrible thing about books like this and the people who write them is the way that generation x or z or whatever has been sold the idea that if they really want something enough, ergo they show confidence in themselves and their abilities, they can achieve it. The realisation that they can’t – which for many comes with a degree in a subject which qualifies them for a life serving coffee – makes a big contribution to the high levels of anxiety and low feelings of self-worth, now manifest among so many of them. 

Joel Sweek
Joel Sweek
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

The four most popular majors among the college students I know are all dedicated to learning and perfecting methods of manipulating people: Journalism, Political Science, Education, and Psychology.

Last edited 3 years ago by Joel Sweek
Val Cox
Val Cox
3 years ago
Reply to  Joel Sweek

All of which then require a post grad qualification to be of any value at all!

Sue Julians
Sue Julians
3 years ago

Interesting how this could feed into the article on ‘posh at Oxford’ and the difference in state and private school graduates.
Confidence not only affects outcomes in the bearer of it, but also by influencing how capable other people think you are of realising your goals.
The emphasis on attainment of A levels and how clever you are in comparison to others, (maybe you should try for oxbridge etc,) feeds into a comparative lack of confidence when getting there, if going from the state system. People arriving from private school feel they deserve to be there. Who is right? Why are state school applicants not encouraged to be more confident and aspirational?
Confidence is the same as a placebo effect in medicine. If you think something will work, it’s works on average 30% better. Good healthcare practitioners harness placebo by treating patients with confidence and educating them well. It’s not enough to just deliver the care, the patient has to trust you and believe what you tell them.

Niobe Hunter
Niobe Hunter
3 years ago
Reply to  Sue Julians

In my personal experience, it didn’t really work like that at Oxford in the 1970’s. The grammar kids were very proud (confident) of their ability in having achieved what was then seen as the ultimate goal. The public school intake were maybe not so surprised or elated to be there. I remember an Old Etonian telling me that he and his friends were quite taken aback by how clever and fiercely competitive the state school entrants were. To their credit, they did not try to undermine them by the sort of sneering and jibing the article you are referring to claimed.
The tutorial system displayed on a bi-weekly basis who was intelligent and hard working. The conversation at hall dinner served the same purpose. The only snobbery I encountered was intellectual, people tended to sneer at those who only took an interest in their own subject, or who couldn’t keep up.
I think that far from lacking confidence, the system of course work A levels and grade inflation may breed a misguided confidence in their own abilities, which exposure to more rigorously and widely educated people may challenge.

Colin Colquhoun
Colin Colquhoun
3 years ago

Robertson’s book does sound poor. But there is a kernel of truth in all this talk of confidence. You’re certainly not going to win if you lack it. The placebo effect would seem related to the notion of “confidence”, and we know that’s powerful.
I will say that when you are in a genuine conflict situation, maintaining condifence is crucial to securing victory. They call it “morale” in that case. You do also need a gun or whatever is appropriate to your conflict athough.
Something is going on with confidence. It is really important. I think it might, in part, be a proxy for your own understanding of your social status, or something like that. Your perception of how likely it is you’ll get backing in your attempt to become more dominant. That sort of thing.
Maybe it should be split into multiple terms.
I liked your peice in Nature about speakers’ fees.

Adam Huntley
Adam Huntley
3 years ago

That’s a very good point. It may not be that confidence will get you anything. But it must surely be true that a lack of confidence, or unnecessary under estimation of ability, will impede the chances of success.

Frank Nixson
Frank Nixson
3 years ago

I have to say that I love the comments section here.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Frank Nixson

awaiting for approval

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Frank Nixson

Why exactly?

Earl King
Earl King
3 years ago

I just point out two items. Jim Fixx a noted long distance runner who promoted running for health died of heart attack. Yesterday I treated a 68 yr old who also was a fitness and health nut. He had 3 prior prior stents in November and yesterday had another blockage causing a MI. I can guarantee being fit is not a marker for whether you build plaque or not in your arteries. it is genetic. You either are or are not a plaque builder. That is the fundamental question regarding your health. Get a Cardiac CT.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
3 years ago

Having read half of several articles by Tom Chivers, I’m confident, based on judgement and past experience, that I’l never finish one and, consequently, will never bother starting another. Even if it does have a picture of my favourite American president with no reference to him in the actual article.

Elizabeth W
Elizabeth W
3 years ago

I really don’t appreciate anything written by Tom Chivers.

Sidney Falco
Sidney Falco
3 years ago

He’s a bluffer. You have the impression he’s winging it in every article.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Sidney Falco

Snake in the grass Sir!

David Redfern
David Redfern
3 years ago
Reply to  Sidney Falco

I believe bulshitter is his preferred term.

B G
B G
3 years ago

Great article. I think Tom is fab. Keep it up, fella. No header pic cognitive dissonance for this UK reader, for whom Trouser Trump is the international symbol of BS.

Last edited 3 years ago by B G
David Redfern
David Redfern
3 years ago
Reply to  B G

I believe it’s well put on another comment here, that whilst most people recognise Trump as a bulshitter, he’s not a brazen faced liar like Obama and Biden.

Colin Colquhoun
Colin Colquhoun
3 years ago
Reply to  B G

Me too, from the perspective of a scientist Tom Chivers is doing rather strong journalism. Not sure what the problem is here. I guess it’s a Trump thing. Yet in fact Chivers never said a word about Trump. People are children.

Mary Muffet
Mary Muffet
3 years ago

Putting a bad photograph of Trump alongside a low grade headline in order to infer an unspoken connection is simply puerile. Anyone who has withstood the relentless anti-Trump brainwashing programme can see that Trump was a remarkably able and successful president and should still be in the White House. Instead we have to watch on in horror as the mentally compromised Biden crashes his way through all the good that Trump achieved.
Perhaps a photo of Biden looking dazed after having just uttered something incomprehensible might have been a more apt image for your article.

MagentaPen 07mm
MagentaPen 07mm
3 years ago

WHELP. I’m not going to read the book, fairly confident of that. And since I have nothing else to factor in, your argument makes me think uncharitable hypothesis #1 (post-prandial speaking fees) is the most likely. And accounting for my wider set of experiences, I’m 10% confident I’ll see this speaker at a required all-staff meeting withing 5 years. Willing to bet $5 to win $50 if there are any takers.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

How I envy you having a job which has meetings like this. In my work the only meeting we ever have is when a 300 lb piece of composite lumber needs to be lifted 20 foot and held wile fastened, and all have to help carry it up ladders with very unsafe footing. I often wonder if I had not screwed up my life what it would be like wearing a suite and having meetings and making huge stacks of money – it must be wonderful.

Niobe Hunter
Niobe Hunter
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

No, you’re better off up the ladder mate.

Val Colic-Peisker
Val Colic-Peisker
3 years ago

A refreshingly sarcastic take on ‘science’ bullshit. Ian Robertson is overly confident in his pop-psych conclusions, and he got his book published too, but not because he was confident – it’s because people will buy and read bullshit that promises easy solutions to their problems, and publishers know this. Pity almost anything can get adorned by the name ‘science’ these days. So much poor research out there!

Michael L
Michael L
3 years ago

A researcher, in this case, Professor Ian Robertson, that doesn’t understand the concept of bias, should be sent back to a University to retake some bachelor-level modules, although it might not help.

Christin
Christin
3 years ago

I had come to expect better of Unheard than a gratuitous click bait photo. The actual bulls+itter is the vapid meat puppet currently inhabiting the white house.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Christin

He is like the Groundhog, hides in its lair till dragged out on occasion and the spokesperson interprets what he is indicating, and then bolts back into his lair.

Seamus McNeill
Seamus McNeill
3 years ago

Scientists should be sceptical rather than confident. Without scepticism Galileo would have continued to believe that the the sun revolved arround the earth.

Colin Colquhoun
Colin Colquhoun
3 years ago
Reply to  Seamus McNeill

And without confidence he’d never have told anyone.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Seamus McNeill

”Modern” Scientists Put their Prejudices before Logic, Unfortunately with 24/7 Media..Logic takes a backseat & Sensationalism &idiocy drives media?..Science Is NEVER Settled

Last edited 3 years ago by Robin Lambert
Judy Posner
Judy Posner
3 years ago

Right on! The Robertson study appears to be an archetypal example of social science psychobabble wherein there is total obfuscation between correlation and causation. It makes my skin crawl.

AC Harper
AC Harper
3 years ago

There is a surfeit of ‘trade books’ about science which promote one ‘thing’ (confidence, a particular hormone, the effects of a single personality, one particular substance) and ignore everything else. You can argue that science is obliged to tease out particular factors and discount the rest. It can be an interesting read.
But it is just a spotlight thrown on one actor rather than the whole stage. If confidence was the summary of prior successes then why wouldn’t prior successes be correlated (not a cause) with future successes? To be of value the book would have to lay out ways in which you can boost ‘confidence’ artificially and show that it ‘works’ as a ’cause’.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

The headline now bears even less relation to the photo. Anyway, the answer to the question, in the vast majority of cases, is ‘Yes’.

Ver Edge
Ver Edge
3 years ago

I thought this was going to be about the solar minimum and a coming ice age. Can you do that next time, please?

David Redfern
David Redfern
3 years ago
Reply to  Ver Edge

Done the global warming/climate change thing to death, so why not?

Frank Nixson
Frank Nixson
3 years ago

I have to agree with Mr. Chivers regarding the poor quality of research and the replication crisis. However, regarding Confidence there are two aspects.

One, simply odds calculations, which a person may be accurate or inaccurate depending on the person and the activity.

Second, there is the aspect of confidence, or more accurately lack of confidence interfering with success. If you have confidence, it won’t improve the objective odds, but if you lack it, your odds get dinged, sometimes badly.

Then there is the aspect of human behavior sometimes called ‘confidence’, but more accurately determination. I had a boss who summed this aspect up nicely, “Everybody has the Will to Win. Pros have the Will to Prepare to Win.”; i.e., are you willing to be out there running every day, rain or shine, for months, to get in your best possible shape for the race.

Last edited 3 years ago by Frank Nixson
Joanna S
Joanna S
3 years ago

The tedium of reading work by someone with a limited vocabulary. Got as far as ‘shitty willpower …’ Lost interest in the rest.

Ryan H
Ryan H
3 years ago

Ally MacLeod never promised that Scotland would win the World Cup in 1978. But he did think they would be good enough to make the third-place playoff.
He was asked what Scotland would do if they won it, to which he replied that they would ‘retain it’.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Ryan H

Scotland have Never Qualified for 2nd round of Soccer World cup…

Neil Anthony
Neil Anthony
3 years ago
Reply to  Robin Lambert

Well you just wait and see laddie.

Bob Bepob
Bob Bepob
3 years ago

There is a funny saying on causality: the fact that you are not paranoid doesn’t mean that no one is out to get you. Adjusted here: the fact that you are confident doesn’t mean that you are not full of sh…

Neil Anthony
Neil Anthony
3 years ago

Opps! You sneaky b*****d photo editor. You snared me good. Thought it, the essay, was about DJ Trump. Instead, methinks it was a subtle dig at Jordan Peterson.

David Brown
David Brown
3 years ago

The Invisible Gorilla, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, has a chapter on “The Illusion of Confidence”.
Basically it states that, for instance, confidence will get you a job when you go to an interview, but it won’t make you any good at the job. I’m pretty sure that Chabris and Simons also cite studies that demonstrate how confidence is basically a scam – a confidence trick, if you will.
We tend to assume that someone who sounds as though he knows what he’s talking about, does, when all too often it’s just guff.

Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
3 years ago

New low for Tom Chivers …

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Fran Martinez

I think his need to always be pouring over numbers and studies to prove what he says shows he is a deeply unconfident person, always out to prove his point to anyone who will listen.
I never need to do that as I am supremely self confident – I just say it like it is, and if you are the sort of sheep who do not believe it, then F*** you.

J Reffin
J Reffin
3 years ago

Thank you for an interesting article. A clearer case can perhaps be made in the opposite direction, namely that self-doubt leads to people under-performing. In short, an accurate assessment of one’s prospective chance is likely to optimise choices (and performance) whereas under-confidence (self doubt) or over-confidence (deluded bullshit) are likely to lead to poor choices (and poor performance).
If you believe that your audience is likely to err on the side of under-confidence and self-doubt (as opposed to over-confidence) then it would be wisest to base your pitch on maximising confidence. I think it is clear which category of person is more likely to be browsing the self-help aisles…

Arild Brock
Arild Brock
3 years ago

SELF-CONFIDENCE MUST BE EARNED
Self-confidence is not something you can choose to have. Self-confidence is like the confidence you have in other people, it is a result of experience.
This, I would say, goes in particular for the self-discipline part of self-confidence. Do you have confidence in your self-discipline? Do you take your decisions seriously after AND BEFORE you have taken them?
Neither self-confidence nor self-discipline is something you simply can choose to have. But both of them can nevertheless be built over time. Ultimately, however, the will to do THAT I guess depends on your urge to live (well). (And can you choose that?)
Therefore it is a little disturbing to think of a person who is good at self-judgement and poor regarding self-discipline with a correspondingly low self-confidence. Low self-confidence would seldom, I think, be the result of an accurate estimate of your condition on the matter in question + your just as accurate understanding of your (poor) self-discipline. This point it seems to me that both Robertson and his critic are missing.
It all then boils down to a need for clarity, firmness and you could even say to masculinity. According to the German-Austrian coach and author Christina Bauer-Jelinek self-discipline was historically “invented” by men. 

David Yetter
David Yetter
3 years ago

The whole of this article is summed up in the motto taught in statistics courses directed at behavioral scientists: correlation is not causation.
If one wants an interesting causal link, I suspect one can find one between objectively unwarranted lack of confidence and failure, though the experiments to prove its existence would be tricky to design. Other than that I suspect there’s nothing to be found other than what Chivers’s critique of Robertson lays out.,

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  David Yetter

I have long thought that there ought to be a vaguely educational TV show called Correlation Street, with each episode lasting two or three minutes.
Essentially, while doing the shopping in Rita’s Kabin* or whatever, one character would relate to another character a story of two correlated events (or a specific phenomenon or state of mind/nature and an outcome). They would then suggest that the correlation is the causation. The other character would scratch their chin, consider their story, and say ‘Ah, but correlation is not causation’ before positing a more likely explanation for the event/outcome.
The first character would then think about it for a moment and say ‘Yes, your’e probably right’ before, now happily much the wiser, getting on with their shopping or whatever.
*I’m not sure if Rita’s Kabin is still a going concern.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

As a TV show they need to have celebrity judges decide who won the argument, and then the loser have to undergo some harsh and outlandish punishment. It would be a hit.

objectivityistheobjective
objectivityistheobjective
3 years ago

I didn’t read the book, but I did read the entire article, and the author of the article lacks just as much nuance and subtlety in his arguments as he is charging the author of the book of doing. Comparing the process of quitting smoking to a novice trying to beat a grand master in chess is ridiculous. Confidence plays a large role in quitting smoking, but confidence plays zero role to the novice beating a grand master. Confidence helps you maximize your ability and your performance. Confidence does not cause you to exceed the limits of your ability. There is a range of performance based on your ability, and confidence helps you reach the top end of your performance range. A confident Phil Mickelson shoots a 65, a non-confident Phil Mickelson shoots a 75. A confidence me shoots a 90, a non-confident me shoots a 110. I never beat Phil Mickelson no matter how confident I am or how lacking of confidence he is at the time. We are both confined to the limits of our abilities. But my level of confidence could determine whether I beat my brother in golf who is of similar ability. Confidence plays a role in success but it is not the sole determining factor.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
3 years ago

Thought the article was about Trump. Was that a New Experiment for Tim to see how many people are confident, clicking on the article, expecting at least a mention of Trump in the article? Could we be informed, otherwise my confidence in UnHerd will suffer…

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

Trump is being proved Correct on SARS2 Escaping from Wuhan(Part funded by EU) ..Your picture like Article is garbage..like A Simon Cowell Programme

Sidney Falco
Sidney Falco
3 years ago

Yes, it’s difficult to take Professor Robertson’s work seriously (if “clinical psychologist” wasn’t a giveaway) when he simply doesn’t understand the meaning of the term “bullshitter”.

Last edited 3 years ago by Sidney Falco
Geoffrey Wilson
Geoffrey Wilson
3 years ago

An excellent, well argued and referenced, article on an important issue of how much social science impacts on our lives. Individual social scientists understandably parrot establishment groupthink, since that helps their career and income. That groupthink is sometimes right, think of Daniel Kahneman’s books which to me show human brain oddities which our tech giants have massively exploited to their profit. But let’s face it, most social scientists are not that clever – please keep up the flow of articles exposing silliness, which are interesting to those of us interested in proper science and knowledge.

James Brennan
James Brennan
3 years ago

Ally Macleod on Peru before the match would have been a better quote. But all we needed to know about Robertson’s authority can be summed up in a very few words, the majority of which should be Duke, University, and Rhine.

David Redfern
David Redfern
3 years ago

Trump was confident Coronavirus escaped from a Wuhan laboratory.
Is some fool at UnHerd suggesting Trump was ‘overconfident’ about that by using a photograph of him to head this article? Or perhaps that he was “bullshitting”?
Trump Derangement Syndrome at its finest.

Rob Alka
Rob Alka
3 years ago

I don’t know why the author of this paper would wish to change or stretch Harry Fowler’s insightful analytical definition of “Bullshit”.
Confidence and over-confidence are near enough the same concept. Even deliberately over-stating one’s confidence isn’t bullshit but instead simply deception or lying.
It is when you lie to yourself that one veers to bullshit; but it is still not quite bullshit but more about a person revving up their confidence, requiring that they bury or suppress any sense of uncertainty or hesitation.
If that person is trying to infect the listener with that confidence, or positive thinking,or belief – typically a politician communicating to concerned voters or a surgeon to a concerned patient) – I contend we’re still in the area of deception or deliberate exaggeration justified as for a good cause.
What’s left that becomes bullshit is when a person lives the lie, to a degree where the person doesn’t see it as a lie. This removes a conflict between one’s ego and alter ego. To that extent, to utter bullshit is more moral than to utter lies. For a politician it is the only way to mentally survive without looking at oneself in the mirror and seeing a consumate liar.
That doesn’t make a politician any less of a menace to society. The world is full of ghastly people who mean well. They’re usually described as Useful Idiots.

Ian Robertson
Ian Robertson
3 years ago

It’s intriguing to be lambasted with the same rhetorical excess and scientific imprecision that one is accused of perpetrating.
Tom, you clearly think confidence is a cod and this strongly-held opinion trumps a fair-minded scrutiny of the scientific literature.
My experience is that generally speaking, the people most likely to be blessed with that most precious of resources – confidence – are those most likely to deny its relevance. People stigmatized by class, gender, race, physical appearance or disability seldom do this. White, male, middle-class, western, public-school-educated men (all like me except the class and education bits) are often blind to the crippling and undermining effects of low confidence and enormously advantageous effects of high confidence.
Of course I am fully aware of the difference between correlation and cause, which is why I take pains to describe and cite most of the experimental studies on confidence where these two things cannot be conflated – but these clearly weren’t included in the two dozen studies whose citations you did check.
But no doubt you remember that the smoking-lung cancer link was established on the basis of such correlational evidence, as was the whole health-movement deriving from the entirely correlational Framingham Study. This study resulted in a 50% reduction in heart disease over 50 years because people learned – via correlational data – that exercise, diet and blood-pressure control made them healthy and stopped them dying.
And you airily sweep away entire careers of careful scientists researching apparently ‘soft’ subjects with careless, inaccurate words like ‘debunked’.
Let me take just one of these domains that you sneer at – the growth mindset body of literature spawned by the brilliant work of Carol Dweck in Stanford. The only people who have ‘debunked’ this work have been – present company excepted, I am sure – careless bullshitters who don’t read the science and value sweeping generalizations over scientific precision.
Of course there is never complete concensus about a topic, but how can a field be considered ‘debunked’ when a paper published in the journal Nature showing positive results in a  randomized controlled trial of several thousand people (1). How can this and several other complex fields with inevitably mixed results be so lazily dismissed?
The replication crisis is not confined to psychology, Tom – it’s as bad or worse in biomedicine (https://slate.com/technology/2016/04/biomedicine-facing-a-worse-replication-crisis-than-the-one-plaguing-psychology.html).  
One of the comments under your article chided you for sporting imprecision and advised you to stick to the day job.
I think the day job needs some work too, for while I would take on board some of your criticisms, I am hugely distracted from doing so by the whiff of overconfident bullshit.
  
1.        Yeager DS, Hanselman P, Walton GM, Murray JS, Crosnoe R, Muller C, et al. A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature. 2019;573(7774):364-9.

Tor Guttorm
Tor Guttorm
3 years ago

This article is simply BULLSHIT
“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”
― W.C. Fields​ (1880-1946)
https://www.callingbullshit.org/

E E
E E
3 years ago

Great article with unsurprising pro Trump responses given the photo. TC makes no comment on where Trump fits in the discussion, just a photo. Yet Pro Trumpers are upset. Seems like they just experienced a Freudien moment.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
3 years ago

Well, more privileged people are also more confident. Ditto for athletes with bodies that allow them to excel better than my own. Indeed, if confidence isn’t based on something tangible, isn’t it really just overconfidence? So simply telling people to “be more confident” may not be based on much at all.
I also think that’s what justifies Donald Trump’s picture. His overconfidence has done him far more harm than good.
Or maybe he’s still president?

Paul Savage
Paul Savage
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Logan

Or maybe he never won an election? Oh wait….

Ernest DuBrul
Ernest DuBrul
3 years ago

An entire article on bullshit and a picture of the bullshitter-in-chief himself, yet no mention of Professor Harry Frankfurt’s seminal work On Bullshit (http://www2.csudh.edu/ccauthen/576f12/frankfurt__harry_-_on_bullshit.pdf)?

From the first mention of the word, there should have been a sodding footnote to Frankfurt’s “tome”.

Neil Anthony
Neil Anthony
3 years ago
Reply to  Ernest DuBrul

A bullshitter who got 3 middle east peace deals. A bullshitter who made the communists in china pay billions to American farmers. A bullshitter who made sure hamas nor hezbollah sent a single rocket across into Israel in 4 whole years. Maybe the world needs more of Trump speciality bullshit

Niobe Hunter
Niobe Hunter
3 years ago
Reply to  Ernest DuBrul

Why do people on the Left always seem to swear unnecessarily?

Tom Chivers
Tom Chivers
2 years ago
Reply to  Ernest DuBrul

sorry for slow reply, but if you ctrl-F “Harry Frankfurt”, you’ll find I did in fact mention him and link to an explanation of his idea