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How I Get It Done

Study: Self-Confidence Plays A Crucial Role In Forging Your Career Path

Self-confidence doesn't just come from within.

Study: Self-Confidence Plays A Crucial Role In Forging Your Career Path
[Photo: Flickr user Richard Deakins]

Once in a while, it is healthy to doubt yourself, to ooze a tiny bit of self-awareness. But a new psychology study from Ohio State University found evidence that an individual's career paths is influenced by their own levels of self-confidence and, to some degree, the amount of social validation they receive along the way.

The study, published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, concerned itself with a concept called "upward self-revision" of our "possible selves." Basically, if you can picture a future version of yourself succeeding at a goal—say, becoming a doctor or a lawyer—you're more likely to actually achieve it. Of course, we're constantly revising these "possible selves" until reality sets in. (I, for instance, was certain I was going to become a paleontologist who happened to moonlight as a professional wrestler in the WWE. But that didn't end up happening.)

For this experiment, Patrick J. Carroll, an assistant professor of psychology at OSU-Lima, set out to evaluate how social pressure can affect how qualified we feel for a certain job. He invited 67 undergraduate students majoring in business or psychology to meet with a career adviser, who handed them a brochure about an exciting new master's degree program in "business psychology." The catch—which students were debriefed on after the fact—was that such a program didn't really exist. Carroll wanted to see who applied anyway.

Students were divided into four test groups. Everyone was asked to submit their GPA and to rate their confidence of successfully becoming a "business psychologist" in an initial evaluation. The groups were set up as follows:

  • A control group that was told there were no GPA requirements for the program.
  • A group that was told the GPA requirement was 10% below what they submitted as their GPA.
  • The advisor told another group the GPA requirement was 10% below what they submitted, and that these students were unlikely to be rejected by the program.
  • The advisor told the last group the GPA requirement was 10% below what they submitted as their GPA, and that they were a perfect fit for the program. In addition to encouraging these students to apply, the advisor said there was a strong likelihood they would graduate with many business psychology job offers.

The results, while not entirely surprising, were rather lopsided. Students who were encouraged to apply for the program—and remember, they are no more qualified than the students in the other three groups—were far more likely to apply for the non-existent program of their dreams. They were told they could do it. And so they did.

"Self-confidence played a key role here," said Carroll in a statement. "Students felt more confident that they could really be successful as a business psychologist when they received a detailed picture from their adviser… Sometimes students have the grades, the motivation, and the ability but simply lack the necessary self-confidence to whole-heartedly invest in the pursuit of a realistic new goal."

While self-confidence is often fortified from within, it's worth remembering that teachers, parents, and other mentors can leave a lasting mark on a young person's career path. A few encouraging words can go a long way—something to keep in the mind the next time a child tells you he or she wants to study dinosaurs and become the heavyweight champion of the world.

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