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.


Burson KA, Larrick RP, & Klayman J (2006). Skilled or unskilled, but still unaware of it: how perceptions of difficulty drive miscalibration in relative comparisons. Journal of personality and social psychology, 90 (1), 60-77 PMID: 16448310

Kim YH, & Chiu CY (2011). Emotional costs of inaccurate self-assessments: both self-effacement and self-enhancement can lead to dejection. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 11 (5), 1096-104 PMID: 21942697

Kruger J, & Dunning D (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77 (6), 1121-34 PMID: 10626367

Moore DA, & Healy PJ (2008). The trouble with overconfidence. Psychological review, 115 (2), 502-17 PMID: 18426301

Pronin E (2008). How we see ourselves and how we see others. Science (New York, N.Y.), 320 (5880), 1177-80 PMID: 18511681

Moore DA, & Small DA (2007). Error and bias in comparative judgment: on being both better and worse than we think we are. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92 (6), 972-89 PMID: 17547483

Image via Dmitry Naumov / Shutterstock.

  • Anthony Spanjaard

    Although the points on inaccurate self-assessment due to lack of proper skill knowledge in certain areas is accurate, I do not agree with the article in its entirety.

    These tests were done on high-school and college aged kids. By this time, a persons pattern of pre-disposition to depression is already set in, probably from an earlier age.

    In my opinion this study confuses cause and effect.
    The child who is ALREADY depressed (cause) feels the need to compensate by overrating their ability (effect). I do not agree that the overrating of ones own ability is a cause that leads to the effect of depression.

    I would be very interested to see the results of a formal study which focused on kids who were conditioned for self confidence from a very young age first, and then watch the results.

    I think the above article confuses self confidence with self dellusion. Self confident people will usually be the first to admit their lack of competency or ability in an area they are not sure of, not vice versa.

    I’d love some feedback from anyone interested if possible

    • Chris Randell

      I am very much in agreement with the article, but not necessarily in disagreement with Anthony. I agree that it is a possibility that the ages of these kids has some setback on the results, or more importantly, the correlation between undeserved praise and depression.

      However, there is also another point to consider. Though these kids may have been predisposed to depression or had been depressed and therefore praise themselves, this could also be a false assumption.

      The study does not show how they would have answered these questions if they were 12 years old, which I agree, would be an important statistic to consider. But it is also important to see reality. People who can view their own life in an objective manner and rate themselves accurately always have a better chance at improving and reaching their true potential. The group of people who are falsely praised and given a sense of worth that they have not earned through merit tend to experience more disappointment and therefore could develop symptoms of depression.

      Let’s set a very easy example which I would say most people have seen in their lives. Yes, I am talking about actors. If someone perceives themselves as a great actor/actress but in reality they are not very good, it is very likely that they will experience repeated disappointment after not landing a part. Because they do not “understand” how someone as good as them could have such bad “luck,” it is very easy to get down on yourself about it. On the other hand, if this same person looks at a tape and is able to say “I am just awful and need to work on such and such,” this person is much more likely to have a chance at improving their skill set and therefore they give themselves a better chance at success.

      How can someone who doesn’t know or understand their flaws possibly change for the better?

      I think it is important for people of all ages to be taught the value of objectivity. It is very easy to think with your emotions and to tell your kids that they are the best at everything. Unfortunately, it’s not the truth. It is great that we encourage our children and our friends to fight for their beliefs and for their goals, but we have to also be realistic. If you have a friend who can’t pass College Algebra, perhaps his thoughts that he will design the next nuclear reactor are a little far fetched… Maybe, just maybe, your fat friend isn’t gorgeous, and if they think otherwise, then it will hurt them in the long run. The rest of the world sees reality in other people, and I think it is important for people to see the reality in themselves. Lying to yourself more often than not leads to disappointment with a lack of understanding. If you have a true objective set of expectations, it is more likely that you will expect a possible outcome and be less surprised about a negative outcome (mainly because you know the outcome CAN be negative).

      I understand where Anthony is coming from, and it is very true that these kids could have been depressed already. But I did want to add that just because the study didn’t show the correlation because of a possible variable (age and mental predisposition to depression) does not mean the study isn’t telling the truth.

      • Anthony Spanjaard

        Thanks for your reply Chris, much appreciated.

        My opinion is that it comes right down to self belief and having the right belief systems conditioned.

        For example to use your actor example of someone who repeatedly gets turned down for a part … After Sylvestor Stallone had written the script for “Rocky”, and was desperate to make some money, he was repeatedly offered money for the script, on contition that he would NOT star in the movie because he was consistently told that he could not speak properly, and would therefore never be able to star in a successful feature film.

        Now the people who told him this on many occassions were experts in the film industry and were actually right, however them being “right” did not alter his internal belief system about what he was capable of. If he had not had the internal confidence and certainty about his own potential, he would have sold the script and we would not know his name today. There are many examples of this happening in sport and business also.

        I completely agree that people should understand their flaws in order to know their capabilities, and I completely agree that children should not be “lied to” with regard being told they are great at everything when they are not, however at the same time I do think it’s imperative that children from an early age are given the gift of how to believe in themselves, even when the world sometimes wont.

        There are so many great examples in the world of people in art, music, sport, business and life who have achieved “the impossible”, only because they believed in themselves when no-one else would. (… and unfortunately there are too many examples today of people who do not believe they can make positive massive changes in their lives because they have no internal reference of self belief and possibility)

        With regard the “fat friend” example, agree not to lie to people about the result they have already put on the table such as being overweight etc, however I do believe that if a person has an underlying self belief, they will be far more likely to do something to change the circumstance, only because the self belief gives them the ability to actually take some action in a positive new direction.

        Many people who find themeselves stuck in a situation of internal suffering, do not believe that they have the ability or the potential to do something about it, and when I talk to many of my clients about this, you’d be surprised at how often this is as a result of having a childhood where they were constantly told they were not good enough.

        I agree that undue praise AFTER an event is not always a good idea, however in my opinion that should also be balanced with encouraging kids to believe in themselves as a matter of general practice.

        The debate on the subject is great and thanks Chris I really enjoyed reading your article 🙂

  • Francis

    The foundation of a person’s self-esteem and self-confidence was started and developed during childhood and succeeding years. This is the reason why we have to take good care of the feelings and emotions of our children. We have to expose them to sports and other activities to let them learn and discover of their strengths and weaknesses. As for bullying, it affects a child’s self-esteem, that’s why bullying should any ways tolerated.

  • self-confidence

    Self confidence sometimes may not that easy to develop but we have to realized that we are the best person that could help us have or gain self confidence.

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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