Can confidence ever be a bad thing? What if it happens to be confidence in your own self-doubt? In a pair of mind-bending experiments Aaron Wichman and colleagues show that doubt layered on doubt doesn’t lead to more doubt but rather to increased confidence, as the initial self-doubt is undermined. The researchers say their findings have clinical implications – for instance, by turning a belief that one is definitely going to fail into a belief that one might fail, a therapist could help inspire a client to overcome the paralysis of hopelessness.
First off, Wichman’s team measured the chronic uncertainty of 37 participants (by testing their agreement with statements like ‘When bad things happen I do not know why’). Half these participants also completed a sentence unscrambling task designed to surreptitiously sow doubt. They had to organise jumbled words into sentences and many of the words, like ‘uncertainty’, pertained to doubt. The other participants performed an almost identical task but without any doubt-related words. After this, the participants read some imaginary scenarios, such as an employee getting a raise, and rated their confidence in the different possible causes of these scenarios. The key finding here was that the doubt-inducing sentence task led usually uncertain participants to be far more confident in their judgments about the imaginary scenarios. Participants appeared to be doubting their own doubts, leading to confidence.
A second study built on these findings, showing that one doubt-inducing task followed by another led to more confident behaviour. Participants first wrote about real-life instances of doubt and then completed a coordination task that required them to shake their head from side to side, as if saying ‘no’ (past research shows that this instills doubt whereas nodding increases confidence). These double-doubt participants subsequently rated an imaginary character Donald as more confident and certain – the opposite of what you’d expect if the two doubt-inducing procedures had added together to make more doubt. By contrast, participants who wrote about a real-life instance of doubt and then completed a nodding task, subsequently rated Donald as unconfident and uncertain, consistent with the idea that the secondary nodding task had reinforced the doubt sown in the writing task.
‘One might speculate that the difference between being certain of one’s agonising insecurity and lack of worth and being uncertain of it may mean the difference between suicide and scheduling an appointment for psychological therapy,’ the researchers said. ‘Sometimes, self-doubt reduction might be achieved by instilling doubt in one’s doubt.’
Wichman, A., Briñol, P., Petty, R., Rucker, D., Tormala, Z., & Weary, G. (2010). Doubting one’s doubt: A formula for confidence? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (2), 350-355 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.10.012