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Building confidence through directed abstraction

· Research,Wellbeing

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in the world who are not very confident in their abilities. There can be a whole host of reasons for this. It is logical to be uncertain about a task when you have little experience in that area, or if you were experienced but a new variable is thrown in the mix (an injury, a larger audience, a tight deadline). However, there are occasions where people lack confidence even when it is something they have done before and succeeded at. Why is that?

Attributing failure

People who strongly maintain their lack of ability in a particular area tend to have an inconsistent view about the cause of the outcome of such tasks. Take, for example, an individual who is solving maths problems and consistently rates themselves as being poor at it. Each time they perform poorly they will back up this negative self image with thoughts related to their character. E.g. I am dumb / useless. I've never been much good at these. They carry their shortcoming as if it is a fixed personality trait.

So what about success?

You would think that success helps to break this mindset. Instead, what we see happen is that success is processed in an entirely different way. If they completed a maths puzzle they would naturally attribute this success to external circumstances. E.g. I was lucky today, that particular test was easy. This means that their successes aren't generalised to give individuals a picture of self competence, but instead are disregarded so that the negative self image is maintained. People who frequently think in this way will soon find themselves with little confidence and motivation for certain tasks, and perhaps even develop a fear for those tasks because of their negative associations.

How to develop a more confident mindset

A technique known as directed abstraction can be used to slowly train people out of this negative loop. Directed abstraction is about consciously (direct) considering the successful situation and what general implications it has (abstraction). In the case of building confidence, directed abstraction is used to make individuals more aware of their own skills and traits that allowed them to be successful. This counter acts the natural tendency to blame success on external circumstances – instead ensuring they recognise their skills and qualities. By consciously relating your successes to your character it slowly rebuilds self belief and confidence for those tasks.

Supporting evidence

Peter Zunick and colleagues (2015) conducted two studies to measure the impact of directed abstraction. In the first, a group of 86 students were asked to perform a menial task - estimating the number of dots displayed on a screen. They were then given feedback that indicated that they had been successful and were asked one of two types of question. Half were asked to explain how they completed the task. This was a very specific and process focussed question. The other half were asked to complete this statement: "I was able to score very high on the test because I am: ... ” This prompted participants to focus on their own personal qualities rather than their external circumstances or behaviours.

Students estimated dots on a screen then completed directed abstraction to improve self confidence.

The participants who had completed the directed abstraction task were more confident about their abilities than when they had started. They also believed that they would be better at completing a similar type of task than they previously thought (e.g. estimating sweets in a jar). It is worth noting that this study is hard to generalise since counting dots is a very trivial task and actual success at the task was exaggerated by the researchers. However, the follow up experiments proved more realistic:

In the second study, Zunick and colleagues collected a group of 59 students who had low self confidence in their public speaking. They were asked to prepare and deliver first presentation to camera on the topic of adjusting to college life. This was a topic they would have a good amount of knowledge on and so would be likely to succeed with. When completed, they watched the video back whilst the experimenter gave them positive feedback. At this point half the group were asked to consider how they went about the task whilst the other half completed a directed abstraction task. Both sets of participants then were asked to give a second presentation on a harder topic. Also, when they watched the video back they were not given the same comforting feedback.

students gave a presentation then completed a directed abstraction task. They felt more confident for a second presentation and future public speaking exercises.

The researchers found that despite the increase in difficulty, those participants who had completed the directed abstraction task were much more confident about the second presentation than people who completed the process questions. The abstraction presenters also felt much more confident about their ability to give presentations in future.

Building Confidence

Directed abstraction has great practical implications for building self confidence. When you complete tasks make sure to take time to think about the elements of your character and abilities that helped you to be successful. This will prevent a tendency to blame success on external circumstances. Also, if you work with others who lack confidence in a particular area you can build their confidence up by placing them in situations where they are likely to succeed and asking them direct abstraction questions to help them reflect on their own qualities and character. To go one further you could even gradually build the level of challenge in tasks so that the individual’s confidence grows even more over time.

For the original study please see:

Zunick PV, Fazio RH, & Vasey MW (2015). Directed abstraction: Encouraging broad, personal generalizations following a success experience. Journal of personality and social psychology, 109 (1), 1-19 PMID: 25984786

Image credits:

Chris and Karen Highland, 2012

Endolith, 2011

University of Fraser Valley, 2014

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