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What is confidence – and what is it for? A psychological approach

7. March 2016 in
What is confidence - header

Confidence is a strange thing. When Jodie Foster won an Oscar, she feared she would have to give it back. That someone would uncover her as a fraud who tricked people into believing she was a movie star.

She’s not the only person (and not the only celebrity either!) whose confidence never lived up to their talents. At the same time, there are people whose confidence seems to be their only real talent. And still, it can get them a long way.

No wonder many people want to increase their confidence. However, before we look into that in our next article, let’s dedicate some time to a very basic question. What is confidence? And what is it for?


What is confidence – a psychological approach

What can psychology tell us about confidence? First of all, that the term is somewhat fluffy. What we mean when we commonly talk about self-confidence is a fusion of different psychological concepts. The main components seem to be: self-esteem, the feeling of being worthy, and self-efficacy, the belief in one’s abilities. So at first, let’s anatomize confidence a bit.

Feeling worthy: self-esteem

Self-esteem is the general attitude you have about yourself.

Do you feel that you have value and earn respect? This points to a rather high self-esteem. Or do you feel useless and good for nothing at times? Then you might have low self-esteem. If you’re interested in finding out more you can take this test.

Your self-esteem, research shows, doesn’t usually change much over time. It is a relatively stable character trait, similar to intelligence. That doesn’t mean it can’t be changed. However, it’s not easy.

What is confidence - self-esteem

Feeling capable: self-efficacy

While self-esteem refers to how you feel about yourself, self-efficacy is about how much you believe in your abilities. It measures how capable you perceive yourself in regards to reaching certain goals. Self-esteem and self-efficacy are not the same. For example, a person can be full of self-hate but still believe firmly in their professional skills. Or the other way around: Someone can see themselves as a lovable person, but still a dilettante in every field.

Self-efficacy describes how convinced you are that your abilities will help you reach your goals. For example, you’ll have some perception about how likely you could finish a marathon. Of course, you can have different levels of self-efficacy for different areas. You might have very little belief in your abilities to run a marathon, but still a high self-efficacy in regards to winning a Pokémon fight. Nevertheless, your self-efficacies in different areas are still loosely connected. They form a generalized self-efficacy: How you perceive your abilities to reach goals on the whole. Training your marathon skills may therefore also increase your faith in other abilities. If you’re interested, you can test your general self-efficacy here.

Self-efficacy is not as stable as self-esteem and therefore easier to boost. We’ll look at that in our next article.

What is confidence: self-efficacy


What is confidence for? The benefits of self-esteem and self-efficacy

Since confidence has those different aspects, it makes sense for you to know what effects they have respectively. This is necessary, so you know if you’d rather improve your self-efficacy or self-esteem. Or even, if actually none of them brings about the result you’re looking for.

The benefits of higher self-esteem

High self-esteem – the feeling of being worthy – has been linked to a lot of benefits. Academic and professional success, improved relationships, likability. And so on. If you’re short on self-esteem, there is at least some good news. Most of these claims were never proven. There is no evidence that high self-esteem makes you perform better at school or studies. It doesn’t make you more likable either. It makes you think you’re very likable, though. But this belief isn’t necessarily shared by others.

To be fair, self-esteem isn’t useless. It makes people more persistent, for example. Also, those with high self-esteem do, in general, have a slightly better job performance. However, it cannot be ruled out that self-esteem is a consequence of their success, not what made them successful. The same applies to happiness: Researchers are not sure if people are happier because of their high self-esteem or if happiness makes them feel valuable. However, while other correlations are very weak, many studies show that happiness and self-esteem are closely linked. It isn’t clear yet how they’re linked but a higher self-esteem might contribute to happiness.

The benefits of higher self-efficacy

With self-efficacy – the belief in one’s abilities – research shows a much clearer picture. Several of its benefits are supported by experiments. It can lead to better academic results and more successful performances in sport. Self-efficacy also makes people set higher goals and hold on to them more. Like that, they usually perform better at tasks.

Why does self-efficacy make people achieve more? It’s pretty easy, actually. If you are convinced you won’t achieve a goal anyway, you don’t try hard. Or you don’t try at all. But trying is the only way to succeed. And success the best way to develop more self-efficacy. Like that, low self-efficacy can create a vicious circle.


Now that we know what confidence is, it is time to look at the ways to increase it. Stay tuned for our next article.



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Susanne Krause

About the Author

Susanne Krause
Researcher and author. As a graduate of psychology and philosophy as well as an experienced journalist, she knows not only where to find the information but also how to put it into words best.

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