Decoding The Source of Confidence

Posted: Jun 05, 2014 11:32 AM

A writing teacher used to claim that “if you can say it in 10 words, you can say it in five.” And a new book seems likely to prove his case.

There would seem to be no need to read the book, “The Confidence Code,” by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay. And there would seem to be no need to read their 6,500-word article in The Atlantic, drawn from that book, since their thesis can be summed up in five words: “Women and men are different.”

Of course, you’re not allowed to say that in 2014. It wouldn’t be P.C. So the authors spend their entire Atlantic piece (and presumably their entire book; I admit I won’t read it to find out) dancing around that obvious conclusion.

“Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities,” Shipman and Kay write. “This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.”

Their research highlights that, for good or for ill, men tend to have more confidence in their abilities than women do.

They cite reams of proof, including a study that asked men and women whether they were skilled in science. Men were more likely to say “yes.” Everyone was then given a science quiz, on which men and women scored roughly the same. The most interesting aspect of this study may be the fact that both women and men scored better on the quiz than they had predicted they would. Maybe underconfidence is the real problem for both sexes.

“To show the real-world impact of self-perception, the students were then invited—having no knowledge of how they’d performed—to participate in a science competition for prizes. The women were much more likely to turn down the opportunity: only 49 percent of them signed up for the competition, compared with 71 percent of the men,” Shipman and Kay write. Well, of course. Since nobody had been told how well they’d done on the quiz, everyone assumed their original perception had been correct. That’s nothing more than human nature.

And speaking of human nature, let’s go back to the original thesis: woman and men are different. How might this have developed?

To take a Rousseauian approach, let’s imagine ourselves back in a world where humans are just beginning to evolve from hunter-gathers to sedentary farmers. In such a world, men would trend toward providing food, whether through hunting or farming or, ideally, both. Women would trend toward domestic tasks.

This is because biology would shape what we today call “gender roles.” Pregnancy is a long, grueling process that tends to reduce female mobility. Even after a baby is born, the mother provides the milk that keeps him alive. So a mother can only go as far as she’s able to carry her child. That limits her food-gathering ability for a year or two. Men, meanwhile, are always free to roam about, hunting or farming at will.

Meanwhile, genetics comes into play. A confident man is more likely to pursue prey, and therefore more likely to bring back valuable protein. A confident man is more likely to plant a crop (recall that our ancestors didn’t enjoy federal crop-insurance programs) and therefore more likely to raise valuable produce.

These confident men, being more successful at bringing back sustenance, would be more likely to push their genes into another generation. Do that generation after generation, and confidence becomes a crucial male trait. And so, as Shipman and Kay found out, it remains today.

Biology matters in a different way, too. Some women, Shipman and Kay included, are beautiful. They enjoy clear advantages. For example, it’s easier for them to get coverage on magazine covers. And while Shipman writes that she “had a habit of telling people she was ‘just lucky’—in the right place at the right time—when asked how she became a CNN correspondent in Moscow while still in her 20s,” luck had little to do with it.

As People magazine explained in a fawning 1995 profile, she went to Moscow as an intern, married the bureau chief, and returned as a correspondent. That marriage didn’t work out, but she’s now married to the White House Press Secretary, which must do wonders for her confidence.

In conclusion, the authors hint that it’s important for women to take action. “To become more confident, women need to stop thinking so much and just act,” they write. “If we keep at it, if we channel our talent for hard work, we can make our brains more confidence-prone.”

Perhaps. But simply acting confident won’t be enough. “Most people can spot fake confidence from a mile away,” they admit. I’m confident it will take a few generations for biology to catch up with where we might want it to be.