How much of a role does class play in self-confidence?


4:55 pm - November 24th 2011

by Chris Dillow    


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Self-confidence plays an important role in depressing social mobility. That’s the message of this new paper:

Even small differences in initial confidence can result in diverging patterns of human capital accumulation between otherwise identical individuals.

As long as initial differences in the level of self-confidence are correlated with the socioeconomic background [which they are]…self-confidence turns out to be a channel through which education and earnings inequalities are transmitted across generations.


The gist of their thinking is straightforward. Say you have two people of equal cognitive skills, but one is over-confident about his ability and the other under-confident.

The over-confident one is more likely to stick with a subject during the early steep phase of the learning curve – believing that “I can master this if only I apply myself” – whereas his under-confident is likely to give up, thinking the material too difficult for him / her.

Alternatively, the over-confident student might choose “difficult” academic subjects at high school, which qualify him / her for entry to some elite universities, whilst the less confident one would choose less academic subjects which disqualify them.

Important and powerful as these are, they are not the only ways in which class differences in confidence can affect outcomes.

There’s also:

- Overconfident people might select into occupations where there’s a high pay-off to the lowish probability of success, such as management, law journalism or politics. Less confident folk, under-estimating their chances, might prefer occupations which yield less skewed rewards.

- People misperceive overconfidence as actual ability. The overconfident job candidate is thus more likely to get the job than the more rational one.

- “Posh white blokes” can – perhaps unwittingly – manipulate the social awkwardness of others for their own advantage, and thus progress at work.

The bottom line here is clear.

In a class-divided society, the very notion of meritocracy is incoherent, because merit in the sense of academic achievement or career success might be the product of an overconfidence which is, initially at least, irrational and unjustified.

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About the author
Chris Dillow is a regular contributor and former City economist, now an economics writer. He is also the author of The End of Politics: New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism. Also at: Stumbling and Mumbling
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Reader comments


I’D love to know how the authors found their ‘otherwise identical individuals’.

2. Chaise Guevara

@ 1

“I’D love to know how the authors found their ‘otherwise identical individuals’.”

I agree it sounds a bit suspect, but it might just be shorthand for “we controlled for other relevant variables”.

Me, I don’t even NEED self-confidence.

People misperceive overconfidence as actual ability. The overconfident job candidate is thus more likely to get the job than the more rational one.

This is why so many psychopaths have prospered in the higher echelons of society. (No, really.)

I always find myself confused when papers are released stating the bleeding obvious…

In a class-divided society, the very notion of meritocracy is incoherent, because merit in the sense of academic achievement or career success might be the product of an overconfidence which is, initially at least, irrational and unjustified.

Meritocracy itself is irrational and unjustified. As an ideology which legitimates privilege and inequality on pseudo-rational grounds that some people are objectively of more merit than others its potentially more dangerous than the manifestly unfair system we have now.

If you look at how people rate their own intelligence/driving skills etc etc everyone is overconfident.

Aren’t the conclusions of this report precisely why traditional socialists thought that equality was what was important. I seem to remember that even the word ‘meritocracy’ was coined by a socialist in the 50′s for satirical purposes.

The truth is that if someone has tried different things and found that they can do them, then they will be more likely to have a go at other things … and so those that have the opportunity to things are likely to advance further than those that don’t. I am not sure it arises from over-confidence as opposed to a willingness to have a go …

The problems with this report is like any report on ability – that it is almost impossible to replicate any individual and so while the researchers may say that they have limited the possibile variables to a mimimum, the problem is that the variables still exist and affect the outcome of the research.

Aren’t the conclusions of this report precisely why traditional socialists thought that equality was what was important. I seem to remember that even the word ‘meritocracy’ was coined by a socialist in the 50?s for satirical purposes.

It was Michael Young. Whenever I see the word ‘meritocracy’ bandies around as if it was something to strive for I wonder how people would respond if the same writer started raving about the benefits of Ingsoc.

Equality of opportunity isn’t equality. Its still a game of winners and losers but just shuffling the deck a bit more.

9. Chaise Guevara

@ 5 shatterface

“Meritocracy itself is irrational and unjustified. As an ideology which legitimates privilege and inequality on pseudo-rational grounds that some people are objectively of more merit than others its potentially more dangerous than the manifestly unfair system we have now.”

Meritocracy IS unfair, but it has that ring of a least-worst system about it. It’s certainly hard to see how it’s worse than our current system (which is partially meritocratic and partly privilegedbastardocratic).

10. So Much For Subtlety

5. Shatterface

Meritocracy itself is irrational and unjustified. As an ideology which legitimates privilege and inequality on pseudo-rational grounds that some people are objectively of more merit than others its potentially more dangerous than the manifestly unfair system we have now.

Keep up the struggle against reality, this time it may work out.

Meanwhile, in the real world, some people are going to have more talent, they are going to be willing to work harder, they will be smarter, they will be better looking than almost everyone else. They will write the songs people will want to hear, they will write the books people will want to read, they will be able to thread a football through a goal to the admiration of most people, they will be able to perform heart surgery faster and better than anyone else.

In the absence of any State interference, they will be paid more for it too.

And so they should. Paying them less than they are due is unfair.

Thanks for the links.

Both my husband and I are from working-class backgrounds – mine from parents with aspirations, his – not.

Both of us have degrees – mine gained by going to university straight from ‘grammar’ school, his by ‘mature adult’ study.

Neither of us have achieved our full potential – and I suspect that that was because our expectations remained lower than perhaps they should have been. Neither of us have self-confidence – neither of us ‘project’ ourselves aggressively – and I noticed, all through my career (and his) that it was those who did ‘blow their own trumpets’ who got the promotions and the kudos – although it was our work that gave them the basis for their ‘triumphs’.

Yes, I know I’m stating the obvious – but it is at least good to have some academic evidence for the reasons for our failure to progress.

It might be the bleeding obvious, but it’s hopefully confirmed in properly regulated research. Of course no two people are the same from the same background, but the arrogance preening over-confidence if certain public school educated people in certain professions is truly astonishing. And then: ‘You have to pay to attract talent.’ Anecdotally, the public school educated people I have met seemed drilled in believing they deserved success and money as of right. But that’s anecdotal and comes from a comprehensive educated shrinking violet.

@11. havantacluOTMP: “Neither of us have achieved our full potential…”

What is “full potential”? If you mean that there is a hypothetical world where less aggressive people may achieve greatness, I have not read anything that suggests how that scenario might be delivered. The best that we can do, in the short term, is to enforce our own (justifiable) self confidence. And to chip away at misplaced self belief by others.

How does failing to meet “full potential” affect your lives? Does it diminish joy?

Meanwhile, in the real world, some people are going to have more talent, they are going to be willing to work harder, they will be smarter, they will be better looking than almost everyone else. They will write the songs people will want to hear, they will write the books people will want to read, they will be able to thread a football through a goal to the admiration of most people, they will be able to perform heart surgery faster and better than anyone else.

In the absence of any State interference, they will be paid more for it too.

And so they should. Paying them less than they are due is unfair.

Why? I’ve never seen an argument from first principles from this, but would be genuinely curious to see one – I’m not simply asking a rhetorical question.

15. So Much For Subtlety

14. Tom Ash

Why? I’ve never seen an argument from first principles from this, but would be genuinely curious to see one – I’m not simply asking a rhetorical question.

Partly because we want them to continue to do it. People will not study for years to be the best brain surgeon or whatever unless there is some sort of financial reward at the end of it. Partly because the alternative is a struggle against reality that is too complex and difficult to make work. You cannot push water uphill. Finally, it is due to the morality of equal distribution. Society cannot work if drop outs who shag a series of teenagers get paid the same as someone who responsibly puts off marriage until they can afford a house. We can’t all be underclass.

16. Leon Wolfson

@15 – But you’re happy to make 99% of university degrees cash-negative.

“We can’t all be underclass.”

Nope, just the 99% in your society.

17. Chaise Guevara

@ 15 SMFS

” Society cannot work if drop outs who shag a series of teenagers get paid the same as someone who responsibly puts off marriage until they can afford a house. ”

I didn’t realise that your pay grade was determined by your marital status.

18. So Much For Subtlety

17. Chaise Guevara

I didn’t realise that your pay grade was determined by your marital status.

“If”. Learn what it means.

10 “Keep up the struggle against reality … In the absence of any State interference, they will be paid more for it too … And so they should. Paying them less than they are due is unfair.”

That at first appears reasonable, the way you put it. But the real question is *how much* more of the cake can cleverer, prettier, more able, or more ruthless individuals get from the real world in return for their contribution to human society. 10 times the average? 1000 times? 1,000,000 times?

In a finite reality, a world of finite resources, surely the corollary of your assertion about the more able and above average getting more than the average share of resource, is that that the less able and below average must then receive commensurately less than the average share? A tenth. A thousandth. A millionth.

You talk about “reality” as if this is the single reasonable arbiter of how we organise ourselves as human societies. But in fact, reality is harsh and inhuman. In reality, outside modern welfare systems, those who are unable to compete often get nothing and die a miserable death. That’s the bare reality.

Is that the reality you want to see? If not, then how would you see reality tempered?

20. So Much For Subtlety

19. birdie

That at first appears reasonable, the way you put it. But the real question is *how much* more of the cake can cleverer, prettier, more able, or more ruthless individuals get from the real world in return for their contribution to human society. 10 times the average? 1000 times? 1,000,000 times?

No that isn’t the real question. If it was the real question you would be totally conceding my point. Shatterface claims that inequality was irrational and unjustifiable. If you concede that it is neither but the real question is how much inequality is justifiable, we are having a different conversation. I can see why you might want to change the topic, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree.

But by all means, let’s consider how much is justifiable. I assume that is what you mean and not how much they can get – because how much they can get depends entirely on how good they are at what they do.

In a finite reality, a world of finite resources, surely the corollary of your assertion about the more able and above average getting more than the average share of resource, is that that the less able and below average must then receive commensurately less than the average share? A tenth. A thousandth. A millionth.

We do not live in a world of finite resources so that is irrelevant. But at any one time, it may look that way, so let’s work with that. I am sure that is a logical conclusion. So what? How does Bill Gate’s wealth make me less happy? As long as my bare minimum is met, I tend to be pretty content even if others are earning more. Why shouldn’t I be?

You talk about “reality” as if this is the single reasonable arbiter of how we organise ourselves as human societies. But in fact, reality is harsh and inhuman. In reality, outside modern welfare systems, those who are unable to compete often get nothing and die a miserable death. That’s the bare reality.

Most people do find reality to be a useful and sensible guide to dealing with the real world. It is harsh and unhuman. But so what? We can modify it, we can ameliorate it, but we can’t ignore it. We need to start from a position grounded in the real world and that reality. Then we can decide what we want to change.

Is that the reality you want to see? If not, then how would you see reality tempered?

Being part of a community means some minimal care for each other. So I do not oppose all forms of welfare as such. However thinking that we can abolish all inequality is not only stupid, it is counter-productive. We have tried to ignore the real world and it has produced the dysfunctional sh!thole that is modern Britain. We have destroyed what was once a functioning community through welfare and the unrestrained embrace of globalisation in all things. We have to deal with the consequences. The first one is to recognise we are not a functioning community any more. Welfare is not what we pay other members of our own community but a ransom we pay to members of other communities to let us live in peace. That is not sensible. We need a different response.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Ruth Mobbs

    How much of a role does class play in self-confidence? | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/AqVqBXZ8 via @libcon

  2. Jameela

    How much of a role does class play in self-confidence? http://t.co/oSWQzsRK

  3. M Humphrey-Gaskin

    RT @libcon: How much of a role does class play in self-confidence? http://t.co/5nrdIwt6

  4. Shazia Yamin

    How much of a role does class play in self-confidence? http://t.co/oSWQzsRK

  5. Rick

    How much of a role does class play in self-confidence? | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/AqVqBXZ8 via @libcon

  6. Warren O'Keefe

    How much of a role does class play in self-confidence? http://t.co/oSWQzsRK

  7. Rick

    How much of a role does class play in self-confidence? http://t.co/oSWQzsRK

  8. Michael Moore

    How much of a role does class play in self-confidence? http://t.co/oSWQzsRK

  9. Heidi N. Moore

    Ability probably plays bigger role, no? RT @libcon: How much of a role does class play in self-confidence? http://t.co/DeM4kYBQ

  10. Jamie

    How much of a role does class play in self-confidence? http://t.co/zhxmKcX5

  11. Megan Corker

    How much of a role does class play in self-confidence? | Liberal … http://t.co/gpkDQeFd





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