Confidence is an attractive and necessary quality to succeed in business, relationships, and life. But, it is a subjective and, sometimes, misunderstood characteristic. From the painfully shy to the arrogantly over-confident, what makes people think and feel what they think and feel about themselves? The authors of a new study report that they have uncovered brain activity patterns that are associated with confidence. And, what’s more, they say that people can be trained to have more confidence.
The new study, published in Nature Communications, used imaging techniques and a method of neural activation called decoded neurofeedback to analyze the brain activity patterns of 17 young-adult participants. The participants engaged in simple perceptual and behavioral exercises that allowed the team of researchers to identify low-confidence and high-confidence brain activity patterns. Next, the participants were given a small monetary reward every time the researchers detected a high-confidence state. The participants also rated their own levels of confidence after the tasks. In the end, the participants unconsciously raised their levels of confidence, in real time, even though they were unaware of the manipulation.
Self-confidence is generally a belief in one’s own abilities. It is a complex internal, emotional state—influenced by myriad factors—that describes how we feel about ourselves. A lack of self-confidence can lead to shyness, social anxiety, lack of assertiveness, communication difficulties, and mental health problems. These factors can, in turn, negatively impact activity levels, relationships, and careers.
To date, self-confidence has been primarily assessed through introspection and self-reports. However, recently, the deeply subjective nature of self-confidence has been examined as an objective quality. Through functional imaging techniques, scientists are beginning to develop neural models for the feelings of confidence, and these new findings have important implications for psychiatry and psychology, as well as understandings of behavior and decision-making.
Self-confidence does not look or feel the same for all people, and, regardless of objective measures of brain activity, it will continue to be an individualized phenomenon, for the most part. The new study does not leave readers with any self-help steps that can be used to improve self-confidence outside of a laboratory setting, but it does support the perspective that self-confidence is flexible and fluid. The finding that self-confidence can be changed by training one’s brain may bring the scientific world one step closer to understanding just how and why certain mental states exist—and, what can be done to change them.