How to be more confident

Many of us struggle with confidence. From deciding on a career path to having your voice being heard at the workplace or asking for a raise, a lack of confidence can have a bigger impact in our lives than we might think.

Although I won’t go into detail about what causes a lack of self-confidence, I would like to clarify that self-confidence is different from self-esteem and that they don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Self-confidence refers to the trust an individual has in their own abilities, whether they think they can rise to the occasion and be successful in a certain situation. Self-esteem refers to the appraisal of one’s own worth including appearance, emotions, and behaviors. It is possible to be self-confident and to have a low self-esteem (and vice versa).


A person with a healthy self-esteem can build their self-confidence through positive and successful experiences. I’d like to offer some ideas to start building your confidence.

1. Make a list of everything you have achieved in your life so far and you are proud of. We often forget or belittle the importance of our own accomplishments (graduating school, raising a child or a work anniversary). Achievements should be celebrated and seen as a demonstration of our own effort and abilities.

2. Come to terms with the fact that you are not perfect. You are -just like everyone else- good at some things and bad at others. Holding yourself to a very high standard and then failing to achieve it can result in low self-confidence.

3. Step outside of your comfort zone and get stuff done. Try attending a networking event or filing paperwork in person. Tackling these small tasks you dread can help you build your confidence as they will provide you with an instant feeling of achievement.

4. Take up something you are passionate about. For some people, it’s hard to feel efficient and accomplished when working in a competitive environment. For other people, it’s just the opposite and they feel that their current occupation it’s not challenging enough. Starting your own project or taking up a hobby can help you identify things you are good at, which will, in turn, make you feel more confident in your abilities.

5. Lastly: always allow yourself to make mistakes. Building self-confidence from experience also entails making mistakes and learning from them.


The benefits of being bilingual

If you are multilingual and make use of more than one language regularly, you are in luck! There is a growing body of evidence that confirms the benefits of being bilingual; chiefly the positive effect it seems to have on cognitive performance. In recent times, we are also seeing more evidence [1][2] about the protective effects bilingualism seems to have against dementia and cognitive aging. On average, bilinguals seem to develop dementia five years later than monolinguals.

Bilingual people are better at carrying out tasks that require focusing on one piece of information without being distracted by others. Years of managing interference between two languages have made the bilingual brain an expert at executive control.


A recent research [3] of brain activity directed by Dr. Ana Inés Ansaldo gives us more insight into how this happens. The study showed how monolinguals need to involve and connect five different brain areas to solve the same task that bilinguals can do with fewer and more clustered regions. The bilingual brain is more efficient whereas monolinguals seem to consume more neurofunctional resources. This could be making them more vulnerable to cognitive aging.

In a review of nine recent studies on this topic [4], Amy L Atkinson indicates that the protective effect against dementia doesn’t seem to occur when the second language was learned later in life or when it is not used frequently enough. However, different studies use different definitions of bilingualism, which makes it hard to draw a conclusion about what type of bilinguals benefit from these protective effects against cognitive decline.

I would also like to note, that most studies that I have talked about so far, make use of visual tasks to assess bilingual and monolingual cognitive performance. A different study measuring auditory attention [5] showed that the effects of bilingualism in the auditory domain are not confined to childhood bilinguals, extending to early and late bilinguals.

It seems that both early and late acquisition of a second language is linked to enhanced cognitive performance as well as cognitive flexibility during multitasking. If you are monolingual, maybe this is the final push you needed to start learning a second language!

1 Bilingualism delays age at onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration status

2 Bilingualism delays clinical manifestation of Alzheimer’s disease

3 Interference control at the response level: Functional networks reveal higher efficiency in the bilingual brain

4 Does Bilingualism Delay the Development of Dementia? Metastudy

5 Never too late? An advantage on tests of auditory attention extends to late bilinguals


Nadia had a rich social life. She always had plans and seemed to be juggling several groups of friends. In reality, Nadia wasn’t able to establish healthy relationships with anyone. She would pursue someone’s friendship intensively only to distance herself from that person all of a sudden. She always claimed she had been wronged in some way or that people had stopped liking her.

Nadia had a good paying job with a permanent contract but -as I later found out- she had been “invited to leave” her previous one. The final straw had been Nadia’s emotional outburst in the presence of a patient. At the new clinic, she was experiencing the same issues that had gotten her fired. She, again, had a difficult relationship with her supervisor and disagreed with most of her decisions and assigned tasks.


The most worrying thing about Nadia was her dangerous and self-damaging behavior. It was common for her to go back home with a guy she had met that same night. Initially, we shrugged it off. After all, we all had a liberal mentality and we thought she was just enjoying her life and her freedom.

It was only when Nadia admitted she never practiced safe sex that we realized her behavior wasn’t just about being free spirited. She said she didn’t need to use condoms as she was already taking the pill to avoid getting pregnant and that the possibility of getting an STD made it all more exciting. She also said she would sometimes try drugs that were offered to her without knowing or caring for what it was.

We asked Nadia to at least let us when she was going home with a stranger but she refused to do so. She would disappear in the middle of the night and turn off her phone. This last point made people distance themselves from her as it was too much to handle.

In one of the rare instances in which Nadia seemed more calm and mellow, she confided that she sometimes felt like the ugly duckling and other times like the most attractive woman in the room. That was the reason why she acted the way she did, she claimed.

After some months during which I only saw Nadia occasionally, she called me to let me know she had decided to move to another city. She wanted to start from zero and leave her past behind. She said she would look for a psychologist there, as I had advised her. She did and she was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.

Prevalence in the general population: 0.7%– 1.6%*
Comorbid with: Schizotypal (15.2%), Paranoid (12.3%), Antisocial (9.5%)*
More common in females
Course: Symptoms actually improve once the person affected reaches their 30s

*Sources: Lenzenweger et al. (2007)
Torgersen, Kringlen, and Cramer (2001)
Zimmerman, M., Rothschild, L., & Chelminski, I. (2005)

It’s not me: it’s them!

If I ask you “Why do you think you haven’t gotten a promotion?” or “Why do you think you did well in school?”, you might say “Because my boss doesn’t like me” or “Because I got a lot of help from my parents”. Someone else might answer “I haven’t gotten a promotion because I’m not ready for one yet” or “I worked really hard for my grades”. The truth is that the real causes of these events are probably complex and varied but we all have a particular way of thinking about them. We all have an attributional style. And they way we think about them has an impact on our behavior and self-esteem.

Attributional or explanatory style refers to the way in which we evaluate and explain events in our lives. It consists of three dimensions: locus of control, stability, and scope.

The locus of control is probably the most talked-about element of this theory. Locus is Latin for ‘place’ or ‘location’ and locus of control refers to where we think the control over the outcomes of our life lies. People with a strong internal locus of control will believe that their life events are the result of their own actions and choices exclusively. Contrariwise, a person with a strong external locus of control will think that external factors (the doing of others, their environment or plain luck) are in charge of the outcomes of their life. Just like personality dimensions, the locus of control is not an “either/or” typology, we all fall somewhere along a continuum of internal/external attribution.

The stability dimension refers to whether someone believes that the cause of outcome is stable or unstable. For example, luck is usually seen as unstable while ability or intelligence will be considered stable.

The last dimension -that I chose to call scope– refers to whether the explanation that the subject gives to an event is generalized to other events or only applies to the event at hand. For example, a person might think they only have luck with relationships but not with money.



The ‘optimal’ attributional style

At this point, you might be wondering: what would the optimal attributional style be? The answer is not so easy but let’s take a look at these two ‘extremes’:


The pessimist believes that failures are their own doing as well as stable and generalized to all possible events. Their successes are however external -nothing to do with them- unstable and specific to certain events. A pessimistic attributional style seems to correlate with depression and physical illness.

The optimist considers their failures are due to external causes that are (luckily!) unstable and specific to some events. Their successes are due to an internal factor -their own choice or their own behavior- that is also stable and generalizable to any event.

Effects of attributional styles

There has been extensive research about the effects of attributional styles on academic performance, health-related behaviors, and job performance. In general, students with an internal attributional style seem to perform better academically. Students with an external attributional style tend to receive lower grades, as they believe there is nothing they can do to do better in school.

There also seems to be a link between an internal locus of control and preventive health behaviors like exercise, breast self-examination, and weight control. People who believe they are in control of their own health, are more inclined to take up healthy habits than those who don’t.

Try to understand your own locus of control by taking this quiz.

Interesting reads:
Oettingen, G. (1995). Explanatory style in the context of culture
Tam Shui Kee Tony (2003) Locus of control, attributional style and discipline problems in secondary schools


I met Roy at a local bar. That Friday night, he had reluctantly joined his co-workers (my friends) for drinks. He wasn’t particularly interested in the conversations so I started talking to him.

Roy told me he had been working and living in the city for over two years. He said he didn’t know many people in here. On the weekends he would get in his car, drive for a couple of hours and hike at some remote location. He played guitar but he didn’t like going to concerts or playing with other people. I got the feeling he wasn’t enjoying our conversation so I left him alone.

I only saw Roy a handful of times the next year. Always at the same bar, with his co-workers but unwilling to socialize. He was a good-looking guy in his late twenties so he would attract some female attention. Roy however, was never responsive to those advances. He wasn’t shy or afraid to speak to girls, he just didn’t want to flirt and didn’t care for them.

My friends were convinced he was gay and afraid to come out to them, but speculations ended when he started dating a girl we all knew. The relationship was brief and not without troubles. Roy wasn’t very involved and kept going on solitary hikes every weekend.


The deal-breaker for the girl, she later confided, was the fact that they almost never had sex. She started believing that the rumors about his orientation were true but then found out that Roy had a big collection of heterosexual porn he watched regularly. When she finally broke things off with him, he didn’t seem relieved nor upset.

After the breakup, Roy had the perfect excuse to avoid the bar and us all together. He’d go to work every day and come home to himself. He wouldn’t even travel to his hometown for the holidays and had very little contact with his family.

The following year, Roy started drinking heavily. It was obvious for everyone in the company that he had a problem. His work started to suffer and HR recommended he seek ‘counseling’. He was reluctant to do so but he was also afraid to lose his job. He was eventually diagnosed with alcohol abuse and schizoid personality disorder. After two months of therapy, Roy quit his job and moved away. We never heard from him again.


Prevalence in the general population: 1.7%–4.9% *
Comorbid with: Schizotypal (19.2%), Avoidant (12.3%), Obsessive-compulsive (5.5%) *
More common in males
Course: Insufficient information

*Sources: Lenzenweger et al. (2007)
Torgersen, Kringlen, and Cramer (2001)
Zimmerman, M., Rothschild, L., & Chelminski, I. (2005)

How does base rate bias work?

Cognitive biases are a very popular Psychology topic. I find them especially interesting because, in many cases, knowing about them and correctly identifying when we use them, can help us think more rationally and make better decisions.

Today I wanted to write about a type of bias that we often find in debates or opinionated conversations; the base rate bias or base rate fallacy.

The base rate bias occurs when base rate information is ignored and specific information -information relating to a certain case- is favored to make a judgment or reach a conclusion. Base rate information refers to the base probability of an event -also known as prior probability.

The base rate bias occurs when base rate information is ignored and specific information -information relating to a certain case- is favored to make a judgment or reach a conclusion. Base rate information refers to the base probability of an event -also known as prior probability.

I already talked about heuristics and cognitive biases and about how we still lack a coherent classification for them. Daniel Kahneman [1] considers base rate bias a specific form of extension neglect. Extension neglect occurs when the size of a set that is relevant to its valuation is disregarded.

The best way to understand this concept is by going over a couple of examples. The first one is a classic one and has been replicated many times with similar results. A group of participants is given the description of a fictional university student chosen at random. Consider Tom’s description:

“Tom is of high intelligence, although lacking in true creativity. He has a need for order and clarity, and for neat and tidy systems in which every detail finds its appropriate place. His writing is rather dull and mechanical. He has a strong drive for competence. He seems to have little feel and little sympathy for other people and does not enjoy interacting with others.” [2]

When asked about what program is Tom most likely to be attending, most people would reply ‘computational science’ or any other engineering program when, in fact, business and social science students are larger in number.

If Tom was chosen at random, he is more likely to be attending one of the most popular studies. Most people ignore this base rate information and reach a conclusion based on the fact that personality types like Tom seem more abundant in computational science programs.

Base rate bias and diagnosis


Another example that is often discussed is the base rate fallacy in diagnosis or assessing probabilities. Let’s assume that a certain disease manifests in 1 out of 1000 people, that means that a person has 0.10% chance of having that disease. There is a medical test that identifies 99% of positive cases when used on a sample of people who have the disease. That means that only 1% of positive cases are not diagnosed. Similarly, the test clears 99% of patients who do not have the disease and mistakenly diagnosis 1% of healthy individuals (false positive).

What is the probability of having the disease if the result of the test comes back positive? Not only patients but also most doctors would struggle to give a correct answer.

Making use of Bayesian statistics we can calculate the conditional probability:

p(disease | positive result) = p(disease) * p(positive result | disease) / p(positive result)

p(disease | positive result) = 0.001 * 0.99 / 0.001 * 0.99 + (1-0.001)*0.01 = 0.090 … 9%

This means that the probability of having the disease it is still 9% even with a positive result on the test. The reason being that the disease is very rare and only 0.10% of the population will have it.

Without making these calculations and considering the 99% of correct diagnosis, it is easy to think that the probability of being sick is much higher. This is why it is important to keep in mind the base rate information.


[1] Economic Preferences or Attitude Expressions?: An Analysis of Dollar Responses to Public Issues
[2] Kahneman, D., Slovic, P., & Tversky, A.E. 1982. Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge University Press.




Renée came from a close-knit family that had moved out of a small town in search of a better life. Her parents never fully embraced the city life. They were used to unlocked doors and familiarity. Their big apartment building with little neighborly interaction made them feel alienated.

Renée and her younger brother were constantly reminded about the potential dangers in every corner. They were also advised not to trust anyone outside of their small family. Sleepovers were not allowed and play dates in someone else’s home were a rare occurrence. They hardly interacted with people outside of school.

When Renée was 17 she was trying to get admitted to a top-ranked university. Unfortunately, her GPA had gone down in the last two years. She complained that her high school teachers were lowering her grades on purpose. She said they never liked her and did not want her to succeed.

Renée was finally accepted in another university. During her four years as a student, she didn’t make any friends. She was distrustful of everyone. She hid food in her dorm room and locked her drawers. She believed her roommates were trying to steal the nice things she had.


She moved out of campus as soon as she could. Her relationship with her classmates was also rocky. Renée refused to compare her notes with anyone. Group assignments with her were described as “a nightmare” by her peers. Renée would start arguments about how little credit her ideas received. She was also unable to accept any criticism.

After graduating, Renée started working a clerical position at a relative’s company. There she met and started dating Nick. After a short ‘honeymoon phase’, the relationship quickly soured. Renée claimed that Nick was cheating on her with another co-worker. She was convinced that everyone in the company knew about it. She also believed that some colleagues were covering up for them.

This suspicion led to several emotional outbursts in the office. She accused her co-workers of conspiring to destroy her relationship. She also brought up long-gone issues she has had with each of them. Nick decided to break up the relationship.

Renée’s parents were informed about her situation and it was recommended that she speak to a psychologist. After a psychological evaluation, she was diagnosed with a paranoid personality disorder.


Prevalence in the general population: 2.3%–2.4% *
Comorbid with: Schizotypal (37.3%), Borderline (12.3%), Narcissistic (8.7%) *
No gender differences
Course: Insufficient information

*Sources: Lenzenweger et al. (2007)
Torgersen, Kringlen, and Cramer (2001)
Zimmerman, M., Rothschild, L., & Chelminski, I. (2005)