The Concern with Self-Confidence

People want to feel good about themselves. From the time children are young, they are told to believe in themselves and be confident. As they grow, children are showered with sometimes-undue praise in an effort to boost their self-esteem and self-confidence. They, in turn, learn to give themselves positive feedback and tell themselves they have done a great job. However, unrealistic self-assessments of performance do not boost self-esteem, but, instead, lead to depression, according to a study recently published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Emotion.

Researchers in the United States and Hong Kong evaluated four groups of high school and college-aged students. The groups were asked to take academic tests and then rate and compare their own performance with other students. The students also completed questionnaires to assess symptoms of depression. In two of the groups, investigators provided false feedback regarding performance to the students. That is, the high-performing students were told they had performed poorly, and the low-performing students were told they had performed well.

Across all four experimental groups, the students who rated their own performance as higher than it actually was were significantly more likely to have symptoms of depression. The authors claim that psychological distress is obvious after false self-praise because people’s inadequacies and vulnerabilities are made apparent. Students who accurately rated their own performance (both high and low performers) did not exhibit symptoms of depression.

Another conclusion of the authors is that inaccurate self-assessments prevent improvement. In this study, accurately self-rated high performers were able to recognize their strengths — arguably, an important life skill. Likewise, the self-rated low performers recognized their weaknesses and acknowledged their need to improve performance in the future — another important skill. Inaccurate self-assessments prevent this awareness, and, the authors claim, prevent low performers from acknowledging the areas in which hard work and dedication could lead to improved performance.

This study supported previous research (and common sense) that people like to hold favorable views of themselves across social and intellectual domains, and people are inaccurate judges of how their performance compares to others. In fact, the less skilled or competent people are at a given task, the more inaccurate their self-assessments. But, an objective perception of performance will improve mental well-being more than arbitrarily believing that one’s own performance is always high.

Today’s society values building up self-esteem and self-confidence. Children are not allowed to have their feelings hurt and there are no winners or losers at many youth sporting events anymore. How do these children ever grow into adults who learn to recognize their own strengths and weaknesses? Of course, children should not be belittled or disparaged, but setting unrealistic expectations of high performance does just as much damage as constant criticism of performance and abilities. Not every child will be the next major league sports star, the next rocket scientist, or the next musical or artistic genius, and setting realistic expectations early may improve their well-being and mental health.


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Image via Dmitry Naumov / Shutterstock.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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