When it comes to predicting the future, humans have always been befuddled by uncertainty. From our cave-dwelling ancestors, for whom misreading the weather could mean a failed harvest and death by starvation, to a unit commander in Afghanistan responding to an insurgent attack, we all use our larger-than-average brains to try to guess, predict, model, hypothesise and bet on events up ahead. For ancient civilisations, it was the gods who knew what the future held, and the trick was to use divination and oracles to uncover the truth. Nowadays, in our post-Enlightenment world, we like to think our judgments are based on reason, but when it comes to the future, the truth is we’re often hugely irrational.
Most of us, for example, think we will live longer than average, even though, by definition, only half of us will. We are hopeless at comparing risks: flying is scary (chance of death: one in 29 million) but it’s fine to use our phones while driving (chance of dying on the roads in any one year: one in 47,000). And when it comes to crazy scientific claims, we’re simply dismissive. No one really believes a coin could land the same way up 10,000 times in a row – but mathematically that’s perfectly possible. We love to think we live in the age of reason, but inside most of us there is a mediaeval peasant clutching a lucky charm.
Natural scientists like to sniff about this, and they have a point. Disciplines such as maths, physics, biology and chemistry have given us a world in which we live longer, more healthily and more happily than ever before. But using maths to predict the future only gets us so far (just ask an investment banker), which is why it was good news when science finally turned its attention to confidence.
Confidence is the tool that protects us when we are anxious about the future. For a long time it was one of the vague things “proper” science didn’t like to go near: hijacked by the self-help industry, it seemed to be too tainted by scented candles and self-affirming chants. But, in 1998, a US psychologist called Martin Seligman founded the Positive Psychology movement, dedicated to looking in a scientific way at human strengths (psychology had previously focussed almost purely on weaknesses and failings), and the proper study of confidence began. Using testable and rigorous research tools, Seligman and others started to pin down what makes one person confident and the other timid – and, most importantly, showed that confidence is a skill that can be learnt like tennis or Photoshop.
The background to this is an insight from another US psychologist, Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Dweck points out that many of us labour under what she called a “fixed” mindset. We tend to think that, by the time they become adults, people are pretty much set in their ways. There’s an advantage in this: we know where we are with people – this one is fun, that one’s shy, she’s good at sports... and they’re not likely to change. But the drawback to that worldview is that it means we can’t change either. So if we’re not confident now, we never will be.
Dweck advocated the opposite way of thinking: we are all constantly capable of change. With enough effort, motivation, training and support, she said, we could all get better at anything, including how confident we feel in stressful situations. All we need to do is give it a go.
Out of the many approaches to becoming more confident that Seligman, Dweck and others have advocated, a kind of three-point plan starts to emerge: Know what your strengths are and build on them. Try new things, and move step-by-step out of your comfort zone. Finally, see setbacks as temporary hitches rather than catastrophic failures.
These are not easy demands. They involve effort and a certain amount of resilience. But they create a virtuous circle. As we try, for example, standing our ground when a passive-aggressive friend tries to bully us into something we don’t want to do, the fact that it works (it usually does), gives us the confidence to risk something new another time. And even if it doesn’t work, and we give up another evening to listening to them whinge, seeing the setback as a temporary hitch gives us the strength either to end the night early or to refuse next time.
As psychologists, Seligman and Dweck are concerned primarily with positive mindsets. A researcher who has focussed instead on the physical aspect of confidence is Alex Pentland, director of the Human Dynamics Laboratory at MIT. In 2002, Pentland and his colleague Tanzeem Choudhury wanted to investigate the non-verbal signals that confident people seemed to give off. They developed a small wearable device, called a sociometer, equipped with a microphone and an infrared transceiver, which could record a person’s speech quality, tone and rhythm, and also their body movements (though not the actual words they said). In a series of experiments, they gave groups of people sociometers to wear and used them to see how they interacted. They found that, although unable to hear anything of the conversations themselves, they could predict with strong accuracy the likelihood of people ultimately agreeing.
What Pentland and his team found was that the most confident groups were those that unconsciously echoed each other’s body language and pattern of speaking. In doing so, they built a close-knit network that allowed them to take risks, collectively agree on strategies and actions and feel comfortable with setbacks.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Pentland’s research, though, comes from his investigations into charisma. Closely bonded groups tend to be conservative in their decision-making as they usually have to reach a consensus. Creativity, though, comes from thinking differently. Pentland wanted to investigate the role of charisma in persuading people to adopt unconventional ideas, the kind displayed by people who are extremely good at pitching business plans or building high performance teams.
In two experiments, both involving business executives, the team were able to predict which of several business plans would be adopted by a panel of investors. In the first, in which people wore the sociometers while making their pitch, the “winners” were those whose voices were fluid and who were energetic and excited. In the second, Pentland found he could predict whose pitches would be accepted at the end of a week-long residential seminar just by analysing the signalling behaviour of delegates during the opening-night mixer. The most successful participants circulated through the crowd, listened intently to others, spoke fluidly and drove conversations with questions.
Commenting on the findings in an article in American Scientist (vol. 98, 2010), Pentland speculated on why he believed business pitches seemed to live or die on the basis of these “hidden signals”:
“Imagine you are listening to a business-plan pitch on an unfamiliar topic. Although you don’t know much about the subject, the speaker’s presentation is fluid and practiced... Your habitual mind says to itself, ‘Well, I may not know much about this, but she is clearly an expert and she is excited … so I guess it must be a good plan.’”
Seligman’s Positive Psychology, Dweck’s growth mindset and Pentland’s findings on charisma – each of these has advanced our scientific understanding of confidence and made it more of a skill we can learn than a trait we may or may not have. And the best thing about this understanding is that it opens up a thrilling new world, one in which we can face the randomness of the future with real excitement. Unlike the ancients and their oracles, none of these approaches promise to predict the future itself. Instead, each of them offers a way of accepting that the future is often unknowable, and that we are capable of using our brains to rise to its challenges.
This decade, the world will change more rapidly than it ever has in the whole of human history. Moore’s Law shows that, technology is now developing so fast that no one can reasonably predict what computers will be capable of in three years’ time, let alone five – or which of our jobs they’ll have taken over. In this context we have no choice but to embrace unpredictability with a rational and research-based confidence. In doing so, we will still often have setbacks, of course, but we will have the skills to learn from them and make them part of our experience.
This piece first appeared in Ideas Illustrated No.5, published by YCN.