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The Confidence Trap


Explanations > Beliefs > The Confidence Trap

Description | Research | Discussion | So what?



There is a trap where belief that you can do something leads to you not doing it.

One of the places where this paradox can happen is in visualization and other deliberate motivational activity. You are asked to imagine an exciting new future, with the idea that you will then be terribly motivated to work hard to get there. But what can occur is that the belief that it will happen is so strong that you just sit back and wait for it to appear.

Another common confidence trap happens in schools, where students believe themselves intelligent and able to learn quickly, and so procrastinate or otherwise put off work now with the assumption that a quick flick through the books later will suffice to get that A grade. In this way, intelligence can breed laziness. This pattern can also reach out into the rest of a person's under-achieving life.


Oettingen and Wadden (1991) tracked women on a weight-loss program. Those who believed they would easily lose weight actually lost less weight.

Phan and Taylor (1999) asked students to visualize themselves getting high grades and then record the hours they spent studying. Students who visualized spent less time studying than those who did not and got lower marks in important mid-term exams.


So why does this happen? One reason is that the parts of our brain that are used to think about the future are also the same parts that remember the past, so imagining a future can, if we are not careful, feel in some way as it has already happened. This can happen subconsciously, with the comfort of a 'remembered future' surfacing as confidence.

There is an assumption in visualization methods that a desirable future is motivating, making a person want to do something to achieve it. Yet people whose sense of control is achieved by ceding control to others may, when believing in the desirable future, also believe that it will be provided for them. And where the sense of control is gained through action, over-confidence in one's own ability to manage the future may also have a non-motivating effect.

This will happen more with some people than others, probably those who are more easily deluded and for whom hard work is not considered a pleasure. Perhaps also people who do not naturally focus on the future more easily drop a forced imagining into a confident past.

So what?

If you are  seeking to motivate somebody, be careful about using visualization methods. Make sure they understand the future as the future and that they actually experience the pull of a desirable future rather than sit back and wait to be taken there.

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