Today, 55 per cent of the world’s population lives in cities. People flood to them in ever-increasing numbers so that by 2050, two-thirds of human beings will live in a metropolis, and it turns out that individual confidence plays a key part in determining who makes such a move.
Dick Whittington was lured from rural poverty by the rumour that the streets of London were paved with gold. It turns out that he was right about London – and indeed all big cities. For the bigger a city, the wealthier and more creative – measured, for example, by the number of patents filed there – it tends to be.
Confidence has three main sources – embracing uncertainty, a sense of control and taking action in spite of anxiety.
- Embracing Uncertainty
While Europeans baulk at moving fifty miles away from their home town, many Americans will shift a thousand miles for a better job. Economists have a word for this – labour mobility – a key player in the strength of the US economy.
The US National Longitudinal Study of Youth found that the more confident young men and women, irrespective of their intelligence levels, tended to move to big cities, and, on average, they became wealthier and more successful than those who stayed home.
Confident people – whether they are customers in a shopping centre or purchasing managers in a company – focus their attention more on potential upsides of a decision than its downsides. This makes them more likely to pay attention to positive, optimism-inspiring indicators in a complex world. They are less inclined to attend to negative, pessimism-inducing ones.
In other words, the confidence of individual people in an economy should make that economy grow and create a virtuous cycle in which that confidence leads to economic success which, in turn, feeds back to higher confidence. And there is evidence to support this. Between 2000 and 2014, for example, across thirteen EU countries including the UK, Germany, France and Spain, the confidence of individual consumers and company executives strongly predicted the unemployment rate in each member state. The relationship was in one direction – the confidence of individual people predicted eventual unemployment levels. Other indicators, such as consumer spending and industrial production, had a two-way causal relationship with confidence, each shaping the other.
We know that more confident people are more likely to start businesses. Inventors with patents will more readily find a company to commercialize them if they are more confident. And, as Arizona State University researchers showed in 2011, companies which manage to make their employees feel more confident, boost their productivity.
- A Sense of Control
The need for control is one of our most basic drives. If you offer an animal an equal reward for doing one of two different things, they choose the action where there is choice, even if the payback is the same. Having choice feels particularly good for humans. Exercising control switches on the same dopamine-linked reward network as does happiness, researchers at Rutgers University showed (1).
Confidence harnesses a deeply ingrained need for control. It does so because it makes you believe that you can do something that has an effect on the world. This is not just a feature of wealth, or specific cultures. It applies across the globe, as shown by the World Values Survey, which is given to thousands of people in more than a hundred countries every year.
One question asked from this survey is this:
Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?
Across the world, if you answer satisfied to this question, you will have higher levels of positive emotions and lower levels of negative emotions, on average (2). And because feeling in control is a crucial ingredient in confidence (3), it is not surprising that control-confidence-happiness mutually reinforce each other.
Across the globe, the confident feeling of having some control over your life predicts your life satisfaction better than health, work, wealth, marriage or religion, University of Turin economists showed in 2009 (7). This is true both within and between countries (2).
Escaping from disadvantage and improving your life chances needs both spans of the confidence bridge, the can do and the can happen. Once in place, then such confidence strongly predicts how well individuals – and whole economies – will perform, a 2015 University of Iowa study showed (5).
- Taking Action in Spite of Anxiety
Tough times make people anxious, and anxiety triggers the brain’s avoidance systems, so that, in general, anxious people tend to take less action. This a great shame because, as the Afghan/Persian poet Rumi said, ‘the path only appears with the first step’. Crucial to reducing anxiety and hence boosting the confidence to take action, is what people pay attention to. Social media algorithms have been shown to feed users with stories that reinforce fears that they have automatically identified in individuals, and many of the populist conventional media also saturate the news with negative stories – for example about crime or immigration – that increase anxiety and hence foster a sense of passivity in the face of overwhelming threat.
A good example of how such effects can be countered arises from the reported lower levels of confidence in girls that mitigates against their career and economic success. On social media, teenage girls follow men more than women celebrities, a 2019 study by data science company Starcount and University of Cambridge researchers showed. When encouraged by The Female Lead (6) campaign to follow confidence-inspiring, high-achieving women, things changed. Interactions with social media were enhanced by offering teenage girls a diverse range of female role models to follow, aligning with their personal interests and career aspirations.
Confidence is key to the economy and confidence can be learned; what’s more, confidence is contagious and just as pessimism can sweep a community or country, so can a sense of can do if credible and trusted leaders show the way.
1. Leotti LA, Iyengar SS, Ochsner KN. Born to choose: The origins and value of the need for control. Trends in cognitive sciences. 2010;14(10):457-63.
2. Sachs JD, Layard R, Helliwell JF. World Happiness Report 2018. 2018.
3. Robertson I. How Confidence Works: The new science of self-belief: Penguin; 2021.
4. Verme P. Happiness, freedom and control. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. 2009;71(2):146-61.
5. Hitlin S, Kirkpatrick Johnson M. Reconceptualizing agency within the life course: The power of looking ahead. American Journal of Sociology. 2015;120(5):1429-72.
6. Apter TFLaT. Disrupting the Feed London2020 [Available from: https://www.thefemalelead.com/.