Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity, and Self-Doubt

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D. - Author

Hardcover | $25.95 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9781594631269 | 304 pages | 17 Oct 2013 | Hudson Street Press | 9.01 x 5.98in | 18 - AND UP
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World-renowned personality expert reveals the truth about something we all want more of—confidence

Millions of people are plagued by low self-confidence. But in Confidence, personality expert Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic shows us that high confidence makes us less likeable, less employable, and less successful in the long run. He reveals the benefits of low confidence (including being more motivated and self-aware), teaches us how to know when to fake it, get ahead at work, improve our social skills, feel better emotionally and physically, and much more.

With this engaging, practical study of our minds and emotions, we can become more capable in every facet of life. Based on decades of research, including the author’s own groundbreaking work, and filled with fascinating anecdotal evidence, this will appeal to readers of The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal and Succeed by Heidi Grant Halvorson. Confidence will shatter every myth you’ve ever believed about self-confidence and its effects on us—ranging from the very personal to the global level.


Confidence Ain’t Competence

It is a cliché that most clichés are true, but then like most clichés, that cliché is untrue. —Stephen Fry

Biographers are quick to attribute the success of eminent people to their colossal levels of confidence, while downplaying the roles of talent and hard work, as if it were in anyone’s hands (or minds) to achieve exceptional levels of success merely through sheer self-belief. In line, magazines and popular blogs grossly exaggerate the role of confidence in determining fame and success. Consider the following examples:

“No matter what you do, be sure to love yourself for doing it.” “If you have confidence you will reach any goal you have; but without it, you have no chance of being successful.” “If you love yourself, your life will be perfect.” “We all admire confident people—confidence is the most important asset in life and it will always lead to success and happiness.”

“We can all teach ourselves to be confident and then all our problems will be solved.” “Confident people are ten times more successful than those who lack confidence.”

There are three big problems with these types of claims. First, it is not easy to make your confidence soar, just like that. If it were, nobody would worry about low confidence; we would just extinguish it like we do thirst or hunger. Second, even if we succeeded at deliberately boosting our confidence, it would not bring us any genuine success. Contrary to what some biographers and self-nominated experts suggest, Barack Obama did not become the first black president in U.S. history because he was confident; Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, did not establish four hundred companies because of his confidence; Madonna has not sold three hundred million records because of her self-belief; and Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, and Roger Federer did not achieve total domination of their sports because they felt good about themselves. The reason these exceptional achievers have confidence is that they are exceptionally competent. It takes an extraordinary amount of talent—and even more hard work—to attain such levels of competence. In fact, the only unusual thing about these people’s confidence is that it is an accurate reflection of their competence. This sets them apart from the majority of superconfident people, who are just not very competent.

The third problem is arguably the most serious one. The illusion that high confidence can help us achieve anything we want puts an incredible amount of pressure on us to feel assertive, and to translate that assertiveness into success. As a consequence, those who lack confidence feel guilty and ashamed, and those who feel confident have unrealistic expectations about what their confidence will help them accomplish. The high confidence premium is such that people are prepared to do just about anything to attain and maintain extreme positive self-views, equating feeling great with being great. The result is a society that mistakes self-importance for importance and self-admiration for admiration, driving more and more people to be obsessed only with themselves.

Narcissism—think Donald Trump or Paris Hilton—is a state of mind characterized by unrealistic feelings of grandiosity and inflated self-confidence. Narcissists are self-centered and feel superior to everyone else; they pay no attention to negative comments from others and dismiss negative feedback. Narcissists are also manipulative and don’t mind exploiting people in order to attain power, fame, or success. The word derives from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a beautiful hunter who was so self-obsessed that he paid no attention to others. In order to punish him, the goddess Nemesis attracted Narcissus to a pond, where he fell in love with his own reflection, not realizing that he was looking at himself. One version of the story says Narcissus drowned trying to kiss his own image; another version, that he remained on his own by the pond until his death, infatuated with his own reflection and unable to relate to anyone else.

There are many reasons to suggest that we are living in a narcissistic era. Indeed, the fact that you may worry about your low levels of confidence is by and large the result of living in a world obsessed with maintaining inflated self-views and high levels of confidence.

In the United States, narcissism levels have been rising for decades. Psychologist Jean Twenge has been tracking national increases of narcissism for years. In one of her studies, Dr. Twenge analyzed data from more than 40,000 students from hundreds of U.S. colleges. In the 1950s, only 12 percent of students described themselves as “an important person”; by the 1980s, the figure had increased to 80 percent. Her data also revealed that between 1982 and 2006 alone, the number of narcissistic students rose from 15 percent to 25 percent, with an even bigger increase found among the women—surprising, since women are typically less narcissistic than men.

Levels of self-esteem—the most generic measure of confidence— have been rising exponentially in the past decades: In 2006, 80 percent of U.S. school students reported self-esteem levels that were higher than the average for 1988. Even more worryingly, a large-scale study by the National Institutes of Health, the main U.S. government agency for funding biomedical and health research, reported that 10 percent of Americans in their twenties met the criteria for clinical (severe) narcissism, compared to just 3 percent of people in their sixties.

It is hard to put these increases into perspective. There are no comparable generational rises for any other psychological trait— aggression, greed, anxiety, IQ, you name it. Unless you are talking thousands of years, people tend not to change much over time. The one increase comparable to the rise in narcissism levels (during a similar time period) is the rise in obesity levels, which increased more than 200 percent from 1950 to 2010. Unlike narcissism gains, however, obesity gains are an acknowledged epidemic. Self-esteem is an unobservable feeling, which makes narcissism rises less apparent than obesity rises.

It would be good if narcissism gains reflected increases in well-being. However, all they indicate is that a growing number of people are obsessed with maintaining extreme positive self-views and unrealistically high levels of confidence. This obsession explains the near-universality of the celebrity cult, with a substantial proportion of the population worshipping those who worship themselves. Indeed, millions of people around the world now aspire to be like Paris Hilton, Simon Cowell, or Lady Gaga, who has more followers on Twitter than anyone else. The explosion of social media sites also allows us all to experience glimpses of stardom firsthand: You don’t have to be Lady Gaga to tweet about what you had for breakfast or tell your followers that your cat is sick, that you had a good workout, or that you are checking in at Starbucks; the only difference is that you are not Lady Gaga.

Unsurprisingly, there are now one billion people on Facebook. Consider the case of a college student who has six hundred friends on Facebook and is constantly updating his status. This student will spend much of his time monitoring other people’s Facebook usage in hopes that they will “like” his activity and write positive comments on his wall (on average, students check their Facebook account at least ten times per day). He will also engage in inappropriate self-disclosure and post thousands of intimate photographs. Happy times? Not really. In fact, research has shown that people who spend a great deal of time on Facebook have lower levels of academic performance and are typically unhappier, especially when they perceive that their friends (who are uploading their own pictures onto Facebook) are happier than they are.

In our narcissistic society, Facebook enables users to create both a confidence and competence illusion, portraying themselves as successful and confident, without, however, persuading themselves— and at best others—that they are either. Facebook is particularly appealing to narcissists because it enables them to compensate for their lack of genuine friends by collecting a large number of virtual “friends” who can play the role of fans. Reassuringly for narcissists, Facebook does not allow users to dislike other users’ activity—we are only allowed to “like” what others do.Unsurprisingly, a recent study found that Facebook users tend to be more narcissistic and exhibitionistic than nonusers, leading the authors to conclude that “Facebook specifically gratifies the narcissistic individual’s need to engage in self-promoting and superficial behaviour.”

A culture of narcissism makes inflated self-views the norm, but if we all paid attention just to ourselves and lacked interest in anyone else, then we’d be condemned to a selfish and isolated life. It would be good if people’s delusions of grandiosity actually enticed them to work hard to attain any kind of grandeur. However, these delusions have precisely the reverse effect, not least because they are close to unattainable. Indeed, the more narcissistic people are, the more unrealistic their expectations will tend to be; and the more unrealistic your expectations are, the more likely you are to end up being depressed when you finally come to terms with the fact that you cannot achieve them. In line, rates of depression have been soaring steadily in the past decades. For instance, from the early 1990s to the early 2000s, rates of depression in the United States increased from 3 percent to 7 percent, a figure that has since doubled. As a matter of fact, depression is now considered one of the leading causes of disability in the world, with current estimates indicating that more than 120 million people worldwide suffer from it. In the United States, depression affects at least one in ten males and two in ten females.

Have you ever craved an ice-cold bottle of Coke? We all have—and yet, there is no real need or biological justification for it. Likewise, millions of people in the world crave high confidence without realizing that they don’t really need it. However, whereas even the most fanatical Coke consumers realize the drink is unhealthy (at least in its regular and sugary version), few people understand that there are no genuine advantages to feeling good about yourself. Instead, most people seem to believe that if they feel good about themselves and have confidence, they will accomplish anything they want, and that if they don’t, they will never manage to excel at anything. The result is a society in which people want confidence more than they need it: a feel-good culture in which the quest for confidence has eclipsed any interest in competence, and most people mistake feeling well for doing well.

The Coke comparison works on many levels. There are few stronger demonstrations of the appeal of our feel-good culture than Coca-Cola, one of the most successful brands of our time. Why does Coke have more Facebook fans than anyone or anything else? Is it because they sell black fizzy syrup? Not really. Just like the caffeine and sugar in Coke make you feel good—a quick and unhealthy fix, made marginally healthier if you consume Diet Coke— Coke’s brand empowers consumers to feel secure by endorsing a spoiled lifestyle in which the main fixation is short-term hedonism. Take a look at some of Coke’s slogans over the years:

1963: “Things go better with Coke.”

1979: “Have a Coke and a smile.”

1989: “Can’t beat the feeling.”

In 2010, Coca-Cola released a YouTube video (“The Happiness Machine”) of a Coke vending machine placed in a college. The video was filmed with hidden cameras and featured the reactions of students to the freebies—flowers, sandwiches, and, of course, Coke—provided by the machine. The clip, which rapidly exceeded three million YouTube hits, shows how feeling good is still a central part of Coke’s DNA. A year later—and after some thirty variations of the original Happiness Machine clip—Coke released another video (“The Happiness Truck”), made in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This time, the vending machine was an actual truck dispensing yet more happiness products: soccer balls, beach gear, and even a surfboard . . . plus, of course, Coke.

Despite the fact that Coke is now known to be unhealthy, people around the world continue to consume larger quantities of it than ever before. This increase in consumption mirrors the increase in demand for many other feel-good products. For example, the past five decades have seen TV viewing figures soar. In the United States, the average household has a TV set switched on for seven hours a day. The amount of time spent watching TV in the United States (a combined 250 billion hours per year) is equivalent to a potential economic growth of 1.25 trillion dollars, based merely on minimum wage salaries paid for that time. Meanwhile, the average American teenager spends nine hundred hours per year in school, versus fifteen hundred watching TV. Yet most Americans don’t think they watch too much TV.

The past few decades have also been marked by exponential growth in the self-help market, which includes books, CDs, seminars, and workshops designed to help people boost their confidence. Between 2005 and 2008 (the year of the most recent economic collapse), demand for self-help products grew by almost 14 percent, and there has been further growth since then, with the self-help industry worth around eleven billion dollars now. The vast majority of these products are based on the premise that boosting our confidence will solve all our problems, but there is little evidence for the beneficial effects of self-help products. In 2005, journalist Steve Salerno published a well-researched critique of the whole feel-good market (titled Sham: how the Self-help movement made America helpless), reporting that 80 percent of self-help consumers are “serial customers,” who purchase and use a great many products. This is consistent with Dr. Twenge’s finding that rates of depression have increased with narcissism and self-worth levels over the past decades.

Like Coke, then, self-help books create an addictive demand for a quick feel-good fix. And as with Coke, there are noxious long-term effects of being too obsessed with one’s own feelings. Unfortunately, repeated exposure to the message that we must feel good at any cost sets unrealistically high expectations for both our confidence and our competence: The more we are told that the norm is to feel good, the worse we feel when we don’t achieve it; the more we persuade ourselves that confidence brings competence, the more disappointed we are when the attained confidence does not bring us competence— unless we become delusional in order to avoid feeling disappointment. The result is a vicious circle: Our feel-good obsession causes unhappiness, which perpetuates the demand for self-help books and other feel-good products, which foment our feel-good obsession.

Just as there is a difference between competence and confidence, then, there is a difference between feeling and being good. When it comes to competence, feeling good does not increase the probability of being good. Moreover, although you may want confidence, it is not really what you need—what you need is competence rather than confidence. Admittedly, boosting our confidence levels would be a worthy enterprise if it helped us be more successful or if it increased our actual competence. However, there is no real evidence that high confidence causes competence.

We’ve already begun to explore and debunk common misconceptions about the relationship between confidence and competence. Now let’s take a look at the numbers. The relationship between competence and confidence is very weak. To be more precise, the average correlation between confidence and competence is around .30. What does this mean? Imagine you meet someone who is confident, and you want to guess whether that person is competent or not. If instead of relying on the default 50 percent chance rate (yes/ no) you take into account the scientific evidence on the relationship between confidence and competence, you would have a 65 percent probability of guessing whether the person is competent or not.

No matter how large a correlation is, it does not imply that one variable is causing the other. As a matter of fact, even the most widely cited scientific studies on the relationship between confidence and competence have tended to rely on subjective measures of competence. For example, imagine that we want to examine the correlation between confidence and competence in the domain of sport by asking participants to indicate the degree to which they endorse the following two statements:

Question to assess confidence level: “I am a good sportsman.”

Question to assess competence level: “I am a good sportsman.”

If you see no difference between the above statements, you are not thinking like an academic—good for you! As common (but not academic) sense dictates, it is problematic to interpret self-report statements as indicators of competence. All they represent is respondents’ evaluation of their competence, which is, of course, their confidence speaking.

Relying on a person’s self-reports to assess both confidence and competence creates an illusory correlation: People who evaluate their confidence highly tend to also evaluate their competence highly, and vice versa. As psychologist Roy Baumeister, a leading scholar in self-esteem, noted, “The habit of speaking well of oneself does not abruptly cease when the respondent turns from the self-esteem scale to the questionnaire asking for self-report of other behaviors. People who like to describe themselves in glowing terms will be inclined to report that they get along well with others, are physically attractive, do well in school and work, refrain from undesirable actions, and the like.”

Carefully designed studies on the relationship between confidence and competence examine objective competence data rather than relying on people’s own accounts of their abilities. Let’s look at a study that psychologist Ed Diener and colleagues did in this vein. They photographed a bunch of students and asked them to rate themselves on attractiveness as well as a generic measure of self-confidence. Students’ pictures were then shown to independent judges, who rated them on attractiveness. The average score given to a picture by different judges was used as the external, or objective, measure of attractiveness, independent of participants’ self-ratings.

If Dr. Diener and colleagues had followed the methodology employed in most confidence studies, they would have merely correlated participants’ self-confidence levels with their self-reported attractiveness ratings. This correlation was almost .60, suggesting that being attractive comes with a whopping 80 percent probability of being confident, and that being unattractive carries an 80 percent probability of being unassertive. However, when Dr. Diener and his team correlated participants’ confidence levels with their objective attractiveness levels, the correlation was 0, implying that whether you are attractive or not, your chances of being confident or unconfident are the same: 50 percent. Thus, confident people are attractive only in their own eyes.

The results of Dr. Diener’s study have been replicated in many other domains of competence, such that measuring competence objectively exposes the gap between confidence and competence. This gap suggests not only that competence and confidence are very different things, but that the underlying reason for the confidence-competence gap is the disproportionately high number of people who consider themselves more competent than they actually are, highlighting one of the most pervasive biases in human thinking: delusional overconfidence.

Ask people how good they are at anything, including difficult things like algebra, and most of them will tell you that they are better than average, which is logically impossible. How can most people be better than most? The better-than-average bias is caused by our strong unconscious desire to maintain a positive self-view, a desire most people have. In fact, the only people who are not positively biased in their self-views are those with low confidence. So, if you hardly ever feel that you are better than others, you are actually less delusional than most people.

Strikingly, the better-than-average bias has been found in every domain of competence. For example, most people think their memory is better than average and that they are healthier than average. Most managers view themselves as better-than-average leaders and businesspeople. Professional athletes, such as football players, think they are better than most of their peers, and most people assume their romantic relationships are better than average. In some domains, the better-than-average bias is especially pronounced. For instance, 90 percent of people think they are better drivers than average, 90 percent of high school students think their social skills are better than average, and almost 100 percent of university professors rate their teaching skills as better than average. Of course, some people will be right in thinking that they are better than average, but in most cases this confidence will be unwarranted—it is statistically impossible for 90 or 100 percent to be above average, because by definition the average will fall in the middle of the population rankings. It becomes particularly evident just how wrong these high levels of confidence are when we account for the fact that some of the people who describe themselves as worse-than-average may actually be wrong.

In what is arguably the ultimate manifestation of the better-than-average bias, most people see themselves as less biased than the average person. This “bias blind spot” has been documented extensively by Princeton psychologist Emily Pronin. In one of her studies, Dr. Pronin asked participants to estimate the degree to which a range of reasoning biases applied to them, presenting them with nontechnical descriptions of each bias, such as:

Psychologists have claimed that people show a “self-serving” tendency in the way they view their academic or job performance. That is, they tend to take credit for success but deny responsibility for failure; they see their successes as the result of personal qualities, like drive or ability, but their failures as the result of external factors, like unreasonable work requirements or inadequate instruction.

Upon reading each description, participants estimated how frequently they indulged in each bias compared with the average person. Despite being told how prevalent these biases are, the majority of participants rated themselves as unbiased compared with the overall American population. Dr. Pronin concluded that just because we may know about these self-serving biases and their effects on people’s self-views doesn’t mean we will realize that we, too, are subject to them:

Indeed, our research participants denied that their assessments of their personal qualities and their attributions for a particular success or failure had been biased even after having displayed the relevant biases and reading descriptions of them.

The better-than-average bias is best exposed by studies that use objective measures of competence. To this end, my team and I have conducted many large-scale studies correlating people’s self-rated and actual abilities. These studies are very straightforward. Participants are asked to rate their own competence (IQ, creativity, math, social skills, etc.) relative to a population average. For example, if they are asked to estimate their own IQ, they are told that the average is 100 and that smart people score 115; extremely smart people, 130; gifted people, 145; etc. After providing their self-evaluations, participants complete an actual test for each of the abilities they rated. Although participants always rate themselves higher than average on all domains, the typical correlation between their self-rated and actual competence is lower than .20, indicating that very few people are able to judge their abilities correctly.

Ignorance Ain’t Bliss

The better-than-average bias is just one of dozens of documented biases highlighting the common nature of inflated self-perceptions. In fact, most people distort reality in their favor on a regular basis, because they have such a strong need to see themselves in a positive light. As leading University College London neuroscientist Tali Sharot noted:

When it comes to predicting what will happen to us tomorrow, next week, or fifty years from now, we overestimate the likelihood of positive events, and underestimate the likelihood of negative events. . . . This phenomenon is known as the optimism bias, and it is one of the most consistent, prevalent, and robust biases documented in psychology.

You may be forgiven for assuming that wishful thinking is a blessing. However, although being able to see the glass as half-full can help us look forward to the future and approach life with enthusiasm, unrealistic optimism impairs our ability to adequately forecast events, preventing us from being properly prepared for the future. Consider the following examples:

• In the 1960s (as anyone who watches mad men will notice) most people were unaware of the fact that smoking tobacco causes lung cancer. As campaigns started to raise awareness of the harmful effects of tobacco, smoking rates declined substantially. In the United States, almost one in two adults smoked in 1960; fifty years later the figure dropped to just one in five. In California, where antismoking campaigns have been most radical, smoking rates have dropped lower than anywhere else, and lung cancer incidence is now 25 percent lower than in any other state.

• Knowledge of the adverse effects of lack of exercise and excessive processed food consumption has led to an increase in the popularity of fitness programs, organic food, and health stores over the past ten years. Although these trends are still subtle, people are now more health conscious than they ever have been, which will reduce health bills and increase both quality of life and life expectancy.

• Awareness of our highly destructive pollution levels has been key to our becoming more environmentally responsible. When Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary on climate change (appropriately named an Inconvenient Truth) was released, it alerted millions of people to a potential man-made catastrophe— global warming. The message was quite apocalyptic, yet it helped create a positive change in people’s attitudes toward the environment, increasing recycling and decreasing pollution.

So the truth is often painful, but less painful than ignoring it. It may seem preferable in the short term to be overconfident (whether that relates to phenomena such as health and global warming or to our own abilities), but ultimately, being aware of our own limitations— and, in particular, our defects—can help us reverse and combat their effects.

According to psychological studies, there are few individual benefits associated with optimism or delusional self-confidence. For example, Randall Colvin and his colleagues from the University of California, Berkeley, conducted three psychological studies to examine the effects of overconfidence and inflated self-views on different aspects of competence. In the first of these studies, they estimated self-delusional biases in a sample of 130 eighteen-year-old students (split evenly between men and women) by comparing their self-descriptions with those of independent, trained examiners. For instance, if students regarded themselves as more charming or intelligent than the examiners thought they were, they were deemed overconfident, whereas if the examiners saw the students more favorably than the students saw themselves, they were considered underconfident. Five years later, Dr. Colvin’s team tested the same group of students (now age twenty-three) on a wide range of competence criteria, assessed by a new group of independent, trained examiners who were blind to the previous ratings of confidence and competence. Data analyses were carried out separately for women and men, in order to spot potential sex differences in overconfidence (remember that men are usually more confident than women). The results showed that men who self-enhanced at the age of eighteen were described in negative terms by others at the age of twenty-three. For instance, they were likely to be perceived as deceitful, distrustful, and guileful. In contrast, men who did not self-enhance tended to be seen as smart, straightforward, and trusting. So, we can see that self-enhancement handicaps men in their social interactions. As for women, those who self-enhanced at the age of eighteen were regarded as more narcissistic (two common descriptions for them were “sees herself as attractive” and “is a sexual provocateur”) at the age of twenty-three. In contrast, women who did not self-enhance were seen by others as interesting, smart, and introspective five years later.

In a second study, Dr. Colvin’s team examined the relationship between participants’ inflated self-views at the age of twenty-three and how they had been described by friends, acquaintances, and trained examiners at the age of eighteen. Their goal was to identify the typical psychological profile of overconfident participants, and to understand how they were perceived by others. The study revealed that those who self-enhanced at age twenty-three had been viewed much more negatively (compared with those who didn’t self-enhance at twenty-three) at age eighteen. Those who self-enhanced at twenty-three had often been described as hostile, and self-enhancing men were also labeled as condescending in their interactions. On the other hand, the twenty-three-year-olds who didn’t self-enhance had been viewed much more positively—as sympathetic, considerate, and giving.

In their third and final study, Dr. Colvin and colleagues investigated the short-term consequences of self-delusional biases by comparing how more and less biased participants behave in social interactions. This time, Colvin’s team filmed participants—seventy male and seventy female students—and obtained self-ratings of their personalities. In addition, each person was also rated by two other participants, so that researchers could compare their self- and other ratings, as well as how self- and other ratings related to the filmed social interactions. The results were consistent with the two previous studies: For those whose self-evaluations were overly positive, other ratings highlighted undesirable behaviors, portraying those participants in a negative light. Also in accordance with the findings of the previous studies, the participants who did not give overly positive self-evaluations were deemed to have all-round much better social skills. Self-enhancing evaluations, therefore, are not shown to increase social competence, but are in fact detrimental, even if the overly positive self-evaluations do make you feel better about yourself in the short term.>

The implications of Dr. Colvin’s studies are clear: Contrary to popular belief, overconfidence is more detrimental than underconfidence, and people with inflated self-views are not just deluded but also handicapped in interpersonal relations. In short, robust research evidence categorically contradicts the cliché idea that thinking highly of yourself will make you successful, highlighting a big gap between feeling good and being good.

Take a look at these statements:

“As a Christian, I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice.”

“I call on you not to hate, because hate does not leave space for a person to be fair and it makes you blind and closes all doors of thinking.”

“It is my greatest wish to enable our people to live with nothing to envy at the earliest possible date, and it is my greatest pleasure to work energetically, sharing my joys and sorrows with our people, on the road of translating my wish into reality.”

You may find these quotes inspirational, and there’s little doubt that they would qualify as great moral statements. However, the first one is by Adolf Hitler, the second one by Saddam Hussein, and the third by Kim Jong Il. The quotes are far from unusual in that dictators commonly regard themselves as moral authorities whose mission is to improve the world; the same is often true of psychopaths. A less extreme (and fortunately more harmless) version of this delusion can be found in the general population. When you ask the average individual whether she is a good person, and she answers yes, she is usually telling you the truth as she sees it. But, as the preceding quotes suggest, seeing yourself as a nice person and actually being a nice person are two very different things.

History is not short on examples of famous people who, in a defensive situation, made use of their persuasive powers in order to demonstrate their innocence, so much so, they appeared to be lying to themselves rather than to others. For instance:

When former British prime minister Tony Blair said he had no regrets about invading Iraq—because he was “pursuing the moral goal” of getting rid of a dictator—he was probably telling the truth, but only as he saw it or wanted to see it, because the alternative was to accept that he had made a big mistake. Not only did the Iraq war cause the death of many innocent people (without improving the state of international politics); it also compelled Blair to quit politics altogether, especially when it transpired that the arguments he used to justify the invasion of Iraq were flawed and based on made-up evidence.

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