In most Western societies confidence is highly valued as an aspect of someone's personality, and yet it doesn't necessarily indicate anything about that person, their abilities, their personality, their values, it simply indicates their level of confidence.

Why do we value confidence at all?

  • Er, the obvious: people are in a better place to judge their own capacity than is someone who doesn't know them at all. To the extent that they have judged themselves correctly, and to the extent that their confidence is a consequence of that judgment, confidence signals that the person knows what they're doing and/or has high status.
    – Rex Kerr
    Dec 15, 2014 at 11:15
  • Disagree. This is the 'confidence is an indicator of competence' argument, and doesn't take into account the Dunning Kruger effect. People who are confident may have no valid reason to be confident, and I entirely disagree that people are in a better place to judge their own capacity than someone external. How many incompetent, but hugely confident people have you come across in your working life?
    – dmc
    Dec 15, 2014 at 11:17
  • 1
    The Dunning-Kruger effect doesn't mean there's no correlation between self-estimates and actual ability, and if you don't know anything about the person you're judging and think you can do better than their self-estimate, you are postulating that there's a negative correlation between self-estimate and actual ability. This is not generally observed.
    – Rex Kerr
    Dec 15, 2014 at 11:22
  • See for instance talyarkoni.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/…
    – Rex Kerr
    Dec 15, 2014 at 11:25
  • 3
    Good question. "The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt." --Bertrand Russell. Dec 15, 2014 at 11:54

6 Answers 6


This is not about philosophy as much as psychology. (But our systematically skewed perception of social assessments is something philosophers should keep in mind. If someone could formulate it well, there is an interesting question in why the stuff most important to us is most often perceived least objectively.)

Estimated via serotonin and cortisol levels, confidence actually predicts competence pretty well in the median-earning range of the population. One theory is that this is the range for whom feedback about competence, especially from our education system, actually bears on self-image, while people of privilege and people of either very low or high ability are often more immune to feedback. And those latter are the people we think of when informally estimating social effects.

A history of success predicts future success, and also predicts confidence, up to a point. One theory (from studies of gifted children) is that this is the point where more acute awareness in general may prime more acute self-awareness and lead one to over-correct, (and the curse noted by Bertrand Russel quoted in the comments begins.)

For instance on the up-side, IQ predicts both confidence and future income, up to a certain level, and then it stops. Most people's IQ's lie well below that cutoff, but the most noticeable people's lie above it. Something similar happens on the down-side -- e.g. the dumb and the arrogant are both more likely to go to jail, but the bet is on the dumb over the arrogant, while the arrogant are the more attention-grabbing cases. So our perception of how much these traits are correlated is skewed.

We overestimate the limitations on this effect, because we are focused on extreme cases, but the mode lies near the median, so we are misled by that impulse. Given that flaw in our perception, we should look at a couple more concrete observations that apply more directly:

The feeling of being powerful has been experimentally verified to allow one to think more abstractly more often, which pays off in modern life. When mixed with raw competence, the tendency to frame things abstractly allows for future improvement, in a way that simple hard work does not. So, to some degree, especially in the young, confidence predicts potential future increases in competence.

Also, risk taking is necessary to leverage competence for actual achievement. Confident people, especially males, are valued for their ability to face risk productively in situations where more competent people might be put off. In a group setting, you often need one party's confidence in order to adequately deploy another's competence -- we are all familiar with the strange stereotype of the underling who actually does all of the work that creates the reputation of 'the great man'.


The Epicurean answer: doubt is unpleasant, so we value confidence as the harbinger of pleasure.


First we have to assume that there are confidence intervals. Let's say we have one person with near 100% confidence and a person with 50% confidence.

The first one we most certainly wont like, because he will always be sure he is the best, but there is always someone who is better.

Let's take the second one, he is balanced he know what he can and what he can not do, and puts the light on the thinks he is best at. This give us someone who can lead us,and every group, country and etc needs a leader, but we woudn't choose someone who is unsure in his abilities, because if he is not sure in himself, how is supposed that he can take responsability for us?

So confidence is something our society needs, but not in insane numbers, I mean the benefit of confidence depends on it's interval, If the interval is over 100% than this is bad and we can call it narcissistic. But when you have somewhat inbetween confidence it is a benefit, because you know what you can do and you put your powers in it, sometimes leadin other people. On the other side having no confidence at all is atleast for me misrable, because this can be asociated with the image of the victim.

  • Again, I don't agree with this sentiment. I appreciate that this is your personal opinion, but I for one, don't place any value in confidence, nor do I lack faith in those without confidence. I also don't agree that confidence is something society 'needs'. I'm trying to get at the root of the issue, which is why is confidence valued so highly.
    – dmc
    Dec 15, 2014 at 13:01
  • Well maybe you didn't get it, by all this I meant that there are leaders and people who need leader, so they need someone that looks like he knows what he is doing(confident), because this gives faith that if you follow this person than you would succeed too. And this way this person looks sometimes funny, but sometimes in some peoples eyes he looks majestic. So here it is the root for me it is that people always followed someone, kings imperators so it's in our nature to want to follow someone.
    – user10973
    Dec 15, 2014 at 13:20
  • I got it perfectly well. I disagree. With respect, that doesn't answer the question, and it puts it into a situational context ie: leadership. What about attraction? I know, hence I posed the question, that confidence is valued, my question is 'why', and with respect, I'm still left wondering 'why' is confidence valued.
    – dmc
    Dec 15, 2014 at 14:01

Continuous application of confidence tests a person more than non-confidence. If a person is confident all of the time, they will be willing to put more on the line for what they believe in. In the short run, this means little, but in the long run, gambling rules can take over. It is hard for a confident person to continuously put themselves (or their reputation, property, etc.) on the line again and again unless they have the right idea statistically more often than random chance.

This turns confidence into a reasonable indicator of how much you should respect their ideas in fields you are not fully versed in. This argument also has a dual: if you know your field well, nothing enrages you quite like having to deal with a confident person who knows less than you do, and yet somehow still attracts a better following than you.


I value "knowledgeable" persons, which by default, are usually "confident" persons. However, since not all confident persons are knowledgeable, I do not value all confident persons.


The question mentioned "confidence", a fairly ambiguous term which may include Cocksuredness at one end and quiet Confidence at the other end. There is the example of Bertrand Russell who stated that "The fundamental cause of the trouble (not explained) is that in the modern world the stupid are Cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubts". This apparently impressive example may be tempting but if analysed closely would be unsuitable as an answer to the question because it fails to include or consider 'quiet Confidence', which is usually based on a high degree of self-knowledge, as well as competency, which in themselves are more than likely to reveal an equal degree of intelligence. So we are entitled to assume that the question referred to this latter type of (self)confidence which usually highly appreciated because experience has taught, say, a future employer, that this person has the necessary qualities to be a valuable asset. Therefore, to denigrate Confidence in a person, or undervalue it, would be a risky choice for the employer. To consider intelligence as (only)associated with "full of doubts" as B. Russell has done is unlikely to impress the employer. Real Confidence is based on a good standard of evaluation of all the possibilities, favourables and not, which may include doubts when warranted. It is therefore rather a question of identifying 'real Confidence', which is and must be valued for its merits because vital to the success of any enterprise, and on occasion Survival.

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