Confidence: Maybe We’re Born with It; Maybe Not

Brain training may lead to boosted confidence, study suggests.

“Confidence is key,” or so the saying goes. Whether you’re making a pitch to a room full of investors, keying yourself up for a big sporting event, or getting ready for an interview, self-confidence plays a big role. It can be the difference between acing and flubbing the task ahead of you.

So what is self-confidence, exactly? In the broadest sense, it’s the term we use for “a person’s perceived capability to accomplish a certain level of performance.” Basically, it’s how strongly we feel we can succeed in a given task, from getting a good grade on a test to talking to a cute stranger at a bar.

Low self-confidence has been shown to contribute to several negative outcomes, including shyness, social anxiety, and communication problems, which can affect everything from your relationships with friends and romantic partners to whether or not you receive a promotion at your job. What’s more, studies suggest that low self-confidence may predict your risk for mental health issues like depression and bipolar disorder. It can also complicate existing mental health problems by making you feel like you don’t have what it takes to get better.

So, is there any way to upgrade our self-confidence? And what, exactly, does self-confidence look like in our brains?

These queries piqued the interest of Dr. Mitsuo Kawato, Director of the Computational Neuroscience Laboratories at ATR, Kyoto. He was one of the authors of a recent research study that used brain training, brain imaging, and artificial intelligence (a process called decoded neurofeedback) to try and answer the question “How is confidence represented in the brain?” Results obtained from the study indicated that self-confidence is associated with specific patterns of brain activity, and that it may be possible to alter and improve an individual’s self-confidence by reinforcing those patterns.

In the study, participants entered a brain scanner that continuously monitored their brain activity. They were asked to perform a simple perceptual task — reporting whether or not they thought a group of dots displayed on a screen was moving to the left or to the right — and were also asked to rate how confident they felt about their response.

The researchers then used an artificial intelligence system and “rigorous psychophysics” to identify the pattern of brain activity present when a participant reported feeling highly confident in their choice.

Next, the participants were asked to do a new task: try to change their brain activity to enlarge a disk presented on a screen…with no further instructions!

Whenever the brain scanner detected the “high confidence” pattern of activity in the participant’s brain, the participant was rewarded with a small monetary gift — and the disk got bigger. The participants, meanwhile, had no idea that their “high confidence” brain activity was what was getting them the cash! (You might remember this technique from our article about brain training emotions, where researchers used a similar method to influence people’s reactions to faces.)

At the end of the study, participants were once again asked to rate their self-confidence when it came to the perceptual task — and they consistently reported that their confidence levels were higher.

What’s particularly interesting about this finding is that while the participants showed an improved level of confidence, their actual performance on the task remained the same. So even though their abilities weren’t improving, participants felt more confident about them.

The study was small — only seventeen people — but provides us with new insight into the mechanics of self-confidence. Two important takeaways? Self-confidence may be improved with little to no conscious effort on the part of the individual, and how much self-confidence someone reports doesn’t necessarily reflect their objective performance.

While more research is needed to bolster these findings, the researchers are already working to develop a clinical application for patients who have psychiatric conditions.

With all the pitfalls associated with low self-confidence, the potential impact of brain-training higher confidence is enormous — and scientists are only just getting started.

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Tom Williams