Press release

Links between confidence and mental health laid bare

Published on 30 September 2022

University of Dundee research has demonstrated the strength of links between mental health and confidence.

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University of Dundee research has demonstrated the strength of links between mental health and confidence, with people experiencing depressive symptoms shown to be systematically underconfident and those with compulsive traits likely to be significantly overconfident.

Human behaviours are guided by how confident we feel in our abilities. When confidence does not reflect objective performance, this can impact critical adaptive functions and impair life quality. Distorted decision-making and confidence have long been associated with mental health problems.

The research, led by Dr Christopher Benwell from the Psychology department at Dundee, sought to explore how accurately people can self-evaluate. Using online surveys, participants were asked to provide self-reported levels of symptoms and to rate their abilities on tests relating to perception and general knowledge.

Dr Benwell and his colleagues found that high levels of symptoms such as anxiety and depression were associated with low confidence, despite these participants going on to outperform their own expectations in the tests. Conversely, symptoms such as compulsivity and intrusive thoughts were found to be associated with reduced objective accuracy but, paradoxically, increased confidence.

Links between depression and low confidence are well established, but the Dundee study is one of the first to identify a clear distortion of confidence in a range of symptoms that are often observed in disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and addiction.

Dr Benwell hopes that the paper can lead to a greater understanding of the relationship between confidence and mental health and to new therapeutic approaches for disorders linked to both over and underconfidence.

“Among people who reported high levels of compulsive traits we found the polar opposite of what we found in depression, with poorer objective performance on the tasks despite inflated confidence levels,” explained Dr Benwell. “This demonstrates a quite striking dissociation between objective performance and self-evaluation.

“In our analysis, we clearly show that confidence was linked with these symptom dimensions rather than general personality traits. We don’t know if there is a causal relationship – if underconfidence is one of the factors that contributes to the development of depression or that it is just another symptom of depression, for example – but there are clear links between the two.

“Miscalibration between confidence and objective abilities can have very negative influences in people's everyday lives. If people are underconfident they may shy away from positive opportunities, and it can restrict their ability to learn. They may stop pursuing activities that could be potentially helpful because they are unable to appreciate that they are actually succeeding, and that is particularly damaging for people with depressive disorders.

“Overconfidence can be problematic because people can commit to things that they don't have the abilities to see through, and they can be too quick to come to decisions about engaging in certain behaviours which, if they were better able to self-reflect, they might realise are not good for them. 

“Perhaps we can learn more about why compulsive behaviour is associated with people not being able to stop participating in behaviours which are damaging or that cause problems in their lives. This is significant given the links between compulsiveness and addiction.”

Dr Benwell says the next stage of this research is to investigate whether people can be trained to evaluate their abilities more accurately, and whether this can lead to more balanced confidence levels and a corresponding improvement in symptoms.

He continued, “Limited evidence exists that short-term training regimes can teach people to calibrate their confidence more accurately in order to reduce overconfidence or underconfidence, leading to more accurate self-evaluation.

“If interventions like these were successful then it might not just be of benefit in therapeutic situations, but maybe even in the general population for people who want to become more self-aware to help in their learning and when making everyday decisions.

“We are using paradigms from experimental psychology to identify the kind of deficits that are associated with these different types of symptoms in the hope of providing new avenues for treatment in clinical settings.”

The research is published in the journal npj Mental Health Research.


Grant Hill

Senior Public Affairs Officer

+44 (0)1382 384768
Story category Research