Confidence Boost

Recently, a friend called me, upset. “How could you do such a thing?” he charged. What happened? Well, it’s a long story, but suffice it to say that a significant machlokes is involved (oy!), and one of the parties thereto claimed that I joined their side of it, insisting that I even signed over to them power of attorney — a patently false statement.

“Yaakov*,” I responded, “what do you take me for? You actually believed that I signed over to them power of attorney? From a distance of 6,744 miles?” I was in the U.S. on a fundraising trip when this portion of the conflagration was raging in Israel. “Yehoshua, I know you well, and, in fact, I did find it hard to believe. After all, you are no-one’s fool. But try to understand… when someone makes loud, public statements with an air of absolute confidence, well… it’s not difficult to understand that one can begin to feel confused.”

Confidence. For some it’s as natural as breathing, while for others it persists as an ever-elusive goal, seemingly always just out of reach. Now, wouldn’t it be great if confidence could be acquired through habituation? Confidence is a feeling, not an action, so that’s hard to imagine. But it turns out that there is a group of researchers who believe that they may have hit on just that!

Dr. Mitsuo Kawato, director of the Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, spearheaded a brain-scanning technique called “Decoded Neurofeedback” by which they can detect complex patterns of brainwave activity associated with high confidence levels.[1] Participants in the study were asked to perform a simple perceptual task: determine whether dots on a computer screen are moving left or right. Each time participants made a choice of right or left — of course while hooked up to a brainwave monitoring apparatus — they were asked how confident they felt about that choice. Thus, the scientists were able to decode the brainwave patterns associated with confidence.

Next, participants viewed a projected image of a white disk and were asked to regulate their own brain activity in order to make the image grow larger. What participants were not told is that the system was set up so that the image would enlarge when the brain scanner detected high confidence levels. The coup de grâce was the small monetary reward a participant would receive. This reward had nothing to do with how well a participant gauged the fluctuating disk size. Rather, it was proffered — completely unbeknownst to them — in consonance with states of high confidence. In other words, they were getting rewarded for high confidence without realizing it. The result? “By continuously pairing the occurrence of the highly confident state with a reward in real time,” explained lead researcher Dr. Aurelio Cortese, “participants [reported that] they were consistently more confident.”

Admittedly, the study was on a small scale, and researchers were forthcoming that “they aren’t exactly sure how the technique may be working, on a psychological level, to boost people’s confidence … but … hope that the technique might one day be used to treat people with … psychiatric conditions that are associated with changes in confidence” (LiveScience).

Here’s the catch, though: Researchers were not able to note an improved performance level as a result of the consistent confidence boost. In other words, participants were doing just as well (or poorly) despite their heightened confidence levels. “It’s…another piece of evidence [that] when people are confident, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right or wrong,” said Charan Ranganath, professor at the Center for Neuroscience, University of California. “It’s important for people to understand that somebody who’s confidently saying something doesn’t necessarily know more than somebody who’s not confidently saying it.”

Yet, human nature seems to defy that statement, doesn’t it? As was the case with my friend Yaakov, we tend to get convinced when we hear people speaking with absolute confidence. Might this have to do with the fact that some people do a fantastic job putting on a show of confidence despite their internal reality of mush? Perhaps. Perhaps the truly fine-tuned eye and ear can discern expressions of confidence that possess the ring of truth, and pick them out from those that are but cheap imitations.

But what is certainly the most important facet of a discussion about confidence is its source. Rav Tzaddok HaKohen MiLublin put it this way: “Just as one needs to believe in Hashem Yisborach, so too must belief in oneself naturally follow.”[2] Hashem is interested in you, elaborates Rav Tzaddok, and you are not some inconsequential piece of matter that is here today and gone tomorrow. When you internalize belief in Hashem, recognition follows that Hashem believes in you. And what greater source of confidence can there be than that? (*name has been changed)

[1]. Using this same technique, this group of researchers discovered a way of erasing fear memories that they believe may hold tremendous promise in terms of treating psychological disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (Nature Human Behaviour 1, May 2016).

[2]. Tzidkas Hatzaddik 154