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Defining confidence

Confidence is a word which we frequently use in everyday language yet rarely do we stop and think what it means. Most dictionary definitions of confidence focus on two related ideas:

•    confidence is about being certain of your own abilities
•    confidence is about having trust in people, plans or the future.

Confidence is thus not simply a feeling that things will go well but also a judgement on our own, or others’, abilities. When the abilities in question are our own, having confidence suggest a high level of self-assurance. Since confidence involves the belief that things will turn out well, confidence may sometimes be used interchangeably with optimism.

As confidence is a multidimensional concept it is not a term much used by psychologists. Indeed the academics who are most likely to use the term are economists. Confidence is a key concept in economics as confidence is needed for investment and the operation of markets.

Instead of confidence, psychologists are more likely to use terms which may still be difficult to define but which are more focused and so more amenable to measurement. The most commonly used terms by psychologists are: self-esteem, self-efficacy and optimism.


Millions of words have been written about self-esteem and many critics believe it is a slippery concept. However, there is general agreement that there are two broad ways to define, and measure, self-esteem. One is to see it as the evaluation a person makes of their capabilities. The other is to see self-esteem as the essentially emotional feeling an individual has about their self-worth. The latter is the more common definition and is the one used in the most popular tool to measure self-esteem – the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.

Self-esteem has been put under the spotlight in other sections of the site. However, it is worth saying here that self-esteem has some importance in life but that the claims made for it have been exaggerated. More importantly, what practitioners have done in the name of self-esteem, particularly in the USA, appear to be undermining young people’s well-being, and we must be careful not to repeat these mistakes.

The Centre's view is that since confidence is about belief in one’s abilities, taking action and being optimistic, we can effectively ignore self-esteem and concentrate on these more important, dynamic ingredients of confidence.

Psychologists use other related concepts to describe the emotional judgement a person makes about themselves such as self-acceptance, self-worth or self-respect and have huge and heated debates about the precise meaning of the terms. One vital difference in the underlying ideas, no matter what nomenclature psychologists use, is whether the positive feeling about the self is linked to abilities or simply to a sense that at heart you are a worthwhile person. I shall develop some of these ideas in the Mindsets chapter in a later section.


Self-efficacy is the term that psychologists use to describe the belief a person has that they can reach their goals. Unlike self-esteem which is more of a global judgement on the self and its worth, self-efficacy specifically isolates the way an individual assesses their competence in relation to achievements, goals and life events. Self-efficacy expert, Professor Albert Bandura from Stanford University argues that “ordinary realities are strewn with impediments, adversities, setbacks, frustrations and inequities.” He therefore claims that people need “a robust sense of efficacy” to keep trying.” Research on self-esteem suggests that parents (through genes and parenting style) have the biggest influence on a young person’s self-esteem. However, Bandura and others argue that schools have a huge part to play in developing young people’s feelings of self-efficacy. (An entire chapter of the book is devoted to self-efficacy and how it can be fostered.)


In everyday life we usually use the word optimism to mean feeling positive about life. Often we refer to someone who is optimistic as seeing ‘the glass as half-full, rather than half-empty”.

In psychology, there are two main ways to define optimism. Scheier and Carver, the authors of the popular optimism measure – the Life Orientation Test - for example, define optimism as “the global generalized tendency to believe that one will generally experience good versus bad outcomes in life.” In everyday language this means “looking on the bright side of life.” In such a definition, pessimism is the tendency to believe “if something will go wrong for me, it will”. The other main way to define optimism is to use the concept of 'explanatory style'. This is the approach taken by Professor Martin Seligman author of Learned Optimism and co-author of The Optimistic Child. He argues that each of us has our own ‘explanatory style’, a way of thinking about the causes of things that happen in our lives. Optimists are those who see adversities as temporary and restricted to one domain of life while pessimists often see problems as permanent and pervasive.

More information on optimism can be found elsewhere on the site.

The Confidence Formula

In the Handbook we use the following formula for confidence:
Confidence = self-efficacy + optimism.

In other words, confidence is an individual’s belief that he/she can reach specific goals plus the general belief that the future is bright.

If an individual’s confidence increases it may well be accompanied by a rise in self-esteem. However, for reasons set out elsewhere we do not think it useful to pursue increases in self-esteem more directly as this can interfere with well-being. The Centre has now evolved a model of confidence which which brings together many of the approaches covered in the book and acts as a useful resume and reinforcement of what has gone before.

Confidence is Not About Public Speaking

One of the biggest mistakes teachers and parents can make about confidence is to equate it with speaking in groups. We know from our workshops with teachers that they often define confidence as the ability to perform or speak in public.  But this largely about personality.  It is not  helpful to define confidence as a particular activity.

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