David Morin

Why faking confidence can backfire and what to do instead

When I created one of my early programs on confidence it backfired…

It turned out that several participants became MORE nervous and LESS confident after they’ve followed my advice. That puzzled me because when I’d tested it on a small beta tester group, they had great results.

Here’s some of the advice that backfired:

  • Be more confident by using a more confident body language (Made popular by Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk)
  • Fake it til you make it” by playing the role of a confident person, such as a movie actor.

Interestingly enough, SOME people have great help by the methods above, and some instead get more nervous.

The methods above force you to focus your attention on yourself. If you already have skeptical self-thoughts, like “What will people think of me?” and “People think I’m weird”, these thoughts will naturally become stronger the more you focus on yourself.

So in an ironic twist of events in your head, these confidence exercises make some of us more self-conscious, more nervous and – less confident.

However, for people who’ve been able to curb their skeptical self-thoughts, faking self-confidence can work great. It’s just that it usually doesn’t work for those of us who need it the most.

Later on, I found studies confirming this (1, 2).

Therefore, we need another tactic that works no matter your starting point.

Here’s where shifting your attentional focus comes in.

In a study (3), participants were told to focus their full attention on a person they were told to have a conversation with. A control group was told to instead focus on themselves.

It turned out that that the MORE nervous people had described themselves before the test, the better the method of focusing outwards worked.

Here’s an effective way to do this in real life:

Whenever you start feeling self-conscious in a conversation, ask yourself (this is just an exercise in your head) questions about whatever the person is talking about.

Let’s say someone mentions volunteering at a dog shelter. When you focus on what someone’s talking about, you’ll notice that you’ll soon be able to come up with a lot of questions.

  • What was it like at the shelter?
  • What’s her favorite kind of dog?
  • Has she volunteered before?
  • How was she able to work without pay?
  • Would she recommend it?
  • Was there any downside?
  • How many dogs were there?

You don’t need to be in an active conversation to be able to use this method. If you’re, say, at a mingle with a lot of people in the room, you can ask yourself questions about any one of them.

For example:

  • What might that person work with?
  • What’s that person interested in?
  • How’s that person feeling right now? (Stressed, happy, calm, frustrated, sad?)

This ability to come up with questions (I call it “cultivating an interest in people”) is one of the most powerful social abilities you can learn.

It’s powerful because of two things:

  1. It forces your brain to focus outwards instead of being self-conscious
  2. You’re practicing your curiosity in others. This curiosity makes it easier to come up with questions and ultimately getting to know people. If you’re good at asking yourself interesting questions about people, you’ll be able to actually use some of those questions when they fit the conversation.

Have you ever tried faking confidence? Have you tried focusing outwards? Let me know in the comments what happened!

1: Body posture effects on self-evaluation: A self-validation approach
2: The Ergonomics of Dishonesty: The Effect of Incidental Posture on Stealing, Cheating, and Traffic Violations
3: The effect of attentional focus on social anxiety

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Comments (4)

  1. Rodrick

    Hey David, sometimes when I want to appear lively and friendly and confident, I end up being just jittery and awkward. Please advise me on how I can fix this.

  2. Anonymous

    This is sooo true. Whenever i try to be confident i start to be self conscious and its so hard to focus on the person im with or talking to. Thanks a Lot. “Fake it til’ you become it”!!

  3. Anonymous

    Do you have any advice for trying to appear confident in front of an audience? I just started singing in restaurants and pubs and the worst part is addressing the audience.