Saturday, 6 March 2010

'It's not Number One who will come out alive: it's the freak in the corner with his eyes on fire.'

The ever-reliable Charlie Brooker speaks some Strong Truth in his TV review for today's Grauniad: 'One of life's sorest tragedies is that the people who brim with confidence are always the wrong people.' (emphasis mine)

A sore tragedy indeed, and one to which I've been giving a lot of thought in the past few weeks. Having found myself unemployed at the end of last year, then making the rounds of job interviews at various places, before securing a job in my current workplace and trying to fit in (and then deciding not to bother trying to fit in) with a new bunch of people, I've been thinking about that elusive beast we call 'confidence' or 'self-esteem' or 'self-worth', or whatever. You know the kind of thing I mean: the can-do, go-getting, utterly sickening attitude of the kinds of prick (and very often the kind of person displaying this behaviour is in possession of a prick, and disgustingly comfortable being so) who truly, honestly believe there's nothing they can't do. The kind of scumbag who winds up on the Apprentice or the other tawdry 'reality' programmes in which gangs of gurning halfwits are pressed into performing moronic tasks for the amusement of Space Raider-chomping never-weres. Those feckers.

The weird thing I've noticed is that, whether on reality TV or in the global marketplace (remember all those smug assurances that the credit bubble wouldn't burst for another billion years?), the confident bastards always fail. This shouldn't be that surprising, psychologically speaking. And it hasn't been surprising for over twenty years. In 1989, Cornell University psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning conducted research which proves, essentially, that the more confident you are of being able to perform a task effectively, the more likely you are to fail. Conversely, truly effective people usually underestimate their performance. Other research has found that trying to boost peoples' self-esteem has no effect on academic improvement, and that employing people with high self-esteem can often be a risky decision because, when their ego is threatened, they usually fuck up. The evidence is there, and has been there for two decades, that recruiting and promoting people on the basis of their being super-mega-confident is an incredibly stupid thing to do. And yet, we continue to live in a world that, as I said yesterday, rewards confidence over actual achievement. Why?

Well, one reason is probably that people in the business world have a very poor understanding of genuine psychology. It amused the hell out of me, during training at my new place, to have to answer yet another bloody VAK questionnaire based on the now mostly discredited pseudo-science of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, but the lack of willingness on the part of business to use genuine personality measures in categorising their staff is a pretty serious matter. If you can't classify staff properly you risk recruiting the wrong people, deploying those people to the wrong areas and, ultimately failing spectacularly, dragging your profits, and maybe even your company, down in flames. But valid and reliable personality measures are difficult to administer. You need qualified technicians to administer and interpret them. They take a while to complete. You need to pay for the tests, and you need to pay the technicians for their hard work as well. This is discouraging to many businesses, but the bald fact is that you get what you pay for. Most personality measures used by companies today are basically no more valid or reliable than a Cosmo questionnaire. If you answered mostly As, Bs or Cs, you're an idiot and your company is fucked.

There is, of course, another reason why people in privileged positions continue to reward confidence, though, and that reason is privilege itself. Basically, the more privileged you are, the more confident you are likely to feel. Remember that privilege can take many forms. Men have privilege over women; cis people have privilege over trans people; whites have privilege over people from other races; able-bodied people have privilege over disabled people, and so on. These oppressions can and do intersect, and people who lack privilege in one way may still have privilege over other groups, and may still abuse it (a good example of this would be the way a lot of cis gay people, who lack hetero privilege, are perfectly happy to exert privilege over trans people, often in hateful and exclusionary ways).

When you look at people in the top positions in industry, you see that, despite decades of equality activism, they still tend to be able-bodied, cis gender, heterosexual caucasian males. Despite the bleatings of the Daily Mail tendency, the archetypal black lesbian in a wheelchair decidedly does not get it all her own way (though if I worked in recruitment I'd hire a black lesbian in a wheelchair in a heartbeat. Imagine having to contend with racism and homophobia and ableism on a daily basis. She'd be hard as fucking nails.). And the reason for this is that we recruit, especially for higher-level positions, on the basis of confidence. And not just confidence in job interviews, but in the business environment. In the office. At the social events. At the squash club. Down the pub. We hire and promote people who exude confidence, who seem like 'good blokes' and walk with a swagger (though we only reward swaggering in people who are like us. Swagger as a member of a minority group and just wait to be accused of being 'uppity'. It won't take long.).

And by rewarding confidence, we reward privilege. People who lack privilege, people who are marginalised by society, have to contend with being reminded of their lack of privilege on a daily basis. (Don't believe me? Think I'm being needlessly 'politically correct'? Read The Invisible Knapsack, or one of its many variants unpacking heterosexual, cis or other forms of privilege.) You are constantly told, in ways both subtle and unsubtle, that you don't belong. That you aren't worthy. This is bound to make it harder to feel confident in yourself. Conversely, if you are privileged, the world goes out of its way to reinforce your confidence. Most of the rich, famous, celebrated people look like you. You can drink where you want, you can sit anywhere you want on the bus, you have no problem flagging down a cab. This is bound to make you feel more confident in yourself.

To put it bluntly, then: rewarding confidence is a way in which privileged people can reward and promote each other on the basis of privilege, without seeming to. They themselves may not even be conscious that they're doing it. But it's discrimination all the same. It's also actively harmful to businesses, because confident people are more likely to fuck up; and, because people with lower self-esteem actually seem to do better in challenging situations, it actually leads to us ignoring a vast wealth of ability, skills and experience which could help pull us out of the economic hellhole smug, confident, privileged people have dragged us all into. It needs to stop.

I'm not holding my breath, though. And, before I go, one final word on self-esteem. There is a way in which those of us who lack privilege can make our self-esteem stronger than that of the privileged. Most privileged people derive their self-esteem from their position in the hierarchy, from being 'top of the heap.' This is not a very strong basis on which to build your self-esteem, and that's why, as in the Baumeister paper I linked to above, it basically crumbles and leads to EPIC FAIL when it encounters an ego threat. If you lack privilege on one axis of the kyriarchy but have it on another, you could follow the 'kiss up, kick down' strategy of picking on groups below you, but this still leads to the same weakness: as soon as you encounter ego threat, you'll fuck up. Or, you could do the smart thing, and base your self-esteem not on your hierarchical position, but on your achievements. Doing this means you have a firmer, more realistic basis on which to build your self-confidence, which gives you a better chance of handling ego-threat scenarios. Privileged people don't like to do this because it's hard work and, hey, why bother when you can just sneer at the outcasts? But it pays dividends when the chips are down. And it's one way in which people who lack privilege have a head-start, because if you base your self-esteem on achievements rather than position, by negotiating the daily challenges of a world which tries to disadvantage you in a million different ways, you've already achieved something great.

And, in facing a world which rewards privilege and marginalises those who lack it, it's important to keep your self-confidence up as an act of resistance to the kyriarchy. And if you are privileged, then you could maybe stop repeating your affirmations into the mirror and listen to the quiet, freakish people in the corner of the office for a change. They might have some ideas of a little more relevance to your business than what England need to do to win the world cup, or what you'd like to do to Cheryl Cole now she's single again. To sum it up: for the marginalised, self-esteem management is self-defence; for the privileged, self-aggrandisation is self-abuse. And we all know what happens when you do too much of that.


  1. If everyone else is sneering at you, that's just an opportunity to grow stronger.

  2. I'm not sure I can entirely agree with all this, mate. First off, confidence isn't only possessed by arrogant, talentless fascists. Nor is it inherently a bad quality to have. Nelson Mandela seems pretty confident to me, and how much would he have achieved without that confidence?

    Of course, I'm not denying that there are confident people who have little actual ability with which to justify their confidence (I work with quite a few myself). But I also know just as many confident people who have ability and use both traits to the advantage of others. All this demonstrates is that confidence and ability are two separate traits - traits that perhaps co-exist less often than we would like, but that are also not mutually exclusive.

    To argue that rewarding confidence is rewarding privilege is also a bit blinkered. Privilege leads to many perks - confidence being just one. Children from poor backgrounds are demonstrably less likely to reach early learning milestones, a disadvantage they will never recover from, which affects their ability to access and benefit from education. Should we therefore stop discriminating on the basis of education?

    Finally, it might not feel like it at times, mate, but you live a very privileged life. You're English, middle-class, white, intelligent, well-educated, you don't suffer from any form of disability and you have the continuing support of a loving family (as much as that might chafe). If you were a top trump card, your privilege score would be higher than most people's (including mine). But that doesn't necessarily lead to greater confidence either, just as ability doesn't.

    While society can be a harsh mistress, you can't blame society for every opportunity denied to you. Lacking confidence is self-limiting, because you choose not to pursue opportunities that confident people would seize. Society might be able to exacerbate the problem, but it's not always the cause.

    Sorry if this seems a bit harsh, mate. Normally I can only nod appreciatively when I read your blogs, but I think you missed the nail with this one. Speak soon!

  3. Well, for one thing, this isn't really about me. As privileged as I may or may not be, I'm thinking primarily of people who are much worse off, and who suffer a lot more rejection and marginalisation by society, with a correspondingly detrimental effect on their sense of self-worth.

    I don't deny that confidence CAN be accompanied by ability; but scientifically speaking, the results of most studies on the subject suggest that these cases are rare. Generally speaking, confidence is a poor predictor of ability. I honestly think we, as a society, place far too much value on it, and it does harm us all as a result.

    I do agree with your point that lack of confidence is self-limiting: that's why I hope that what marginalised people will take from this article is the stuff in the last couple of paragraphs. The world will be a better place when the meek stop waiting around to inherit the earth and start using our superior abilities to take apart the edifices of privilege one piece at a time. I like to think that in my own small way I'm part of that.