The Cornered Cat
Confidence and false confidence

Start with this: when you want to defend yourself, confidence is a good thing. First, the body language of confidence can deter criminals from choosing you as a victim. If you are chosen, having confidence in what you know and what you can do helps you react more quickly. It helps you protect yourself with decisive speed. 1 That’s important. Even a bad plan can sometimes work for self-defense when it’s done quickly, aggressively, and with confidence.

That’s not all there is to the story.

Several years back, two researchers published a hilariously brilliant paper – so brilliant and hilarious, in fact, that it won an Ig Nobel prize. The title: “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” 2

In that paper, the researchers showed that people have to know something about a subject in order to realize they don’t understand it. They have to achieve a certain skill level at something before they realize how much better they could be at that thing. Without that knowledge, unskilled people radically overestimate their own abilities.

The authors wrote:

Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.

It’s that last sentence I wanted to focus on. It says that improving the skills of the participants actually caused a drop in their self-confidence levels. When these people began to learn more, the first thing that happened was that they realized how little they knew to begin with. They went from being more confident to being less confident in their abilities.

This has chilling implications for defensive firearm instructors who provide training beyond the state requirements. Why? Because our students almost invariably come to us with frighteningly low skill levels but relatively high confidence levels. They know they need to learn more, of course (otherwise they wouldn’t be in class). But they often lack understanding of what self-defense looks like or how the skills they need relate to the ones they already have.

And as soon as their skills start improving, their confidence level can drop. (It doesn’t always, but it can.) When it does, it drops because they are getting a more accurate picture of what they can or cannot effectively do to defend themselves. It drops because they start measuring themselves against reality, instead of against the fantasy inside their head. Or because they are now shooting alongside better shooters than they were before, so now they’re measuring themselves against a higher level of skill without realizing how far they’ve come. Any of these things can cause confidence levels to go down as actual skill increases.

The problem is, even misplaced confidence helps people avoid being chosen as victims in the first place. Confidence helps people act decisively when decisiveness can save their lives. And, of course, confidence feels good. People want to feel good when they train, which means keeping confidence high may help keep them training and improving.

That leads us to a delicate balancing act. Good instructors must (by definition) improve the students’ skill levels with solid training in useful techniques. We must work with the students to help them understand what they know and what they don’t know. We must be sure they know what they need to learn next and how they can improve their skills from the point they’re at right now. We must keep them grounded in reality, and that means we have to destroy some of the fantasy ideas they might have about what they can do.

But as we’re doing all these things, we should always work to bring their actual abilities into alignment with their confidence – never the other way around.

Because confidence is a good thing.


  1. Update: Fixed a mangled sentence here.
  2. Justin Kruger and David Dunning. “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1999, Vol. 77, No. 6.

2 Responses to Confidence and false confidence

  1. Female and Armed says:

    Wow, this is a must read.

  2. guffaw1952 says:

    “Man’s got to know his limitations.” – Inspector Harry Callahan

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