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Be confident, idiot….

Be confident, idiot….

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.

By Nazarul Islam

Let’s share with you…. 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.)

Again….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, 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 anyone was  to develop heart disease tomorrow, and you were to ask the person’s wife whether she thinks he will likely 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 the patient’s health, his ability to stick to exercise and diet regimes, whether or not he tended to stick his 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%.”

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 behavior, 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 visualize 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 or 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.

[author title=”Nazarul Islam ” image=”https://sindhcourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Nazarul-Islam-2.png”]The Bengal-born writer Nazarul Islam is a senior educationist based in USA. He writes for Sindh Courier and the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America. He is author of a recently published book ‘Chasing Hope’ – a compilation of his 119 articles.[/author]