Self Confidence Built into Genes? I don’t agree

andymThere has been some recently published research that suggests that there is now a genetic basis to self confidence.  Originally in “Psychological Science”,  but picked up worldwide, this research compared pairs of twins – half identical, half non-identical – usually the benchmark for sound academic research.

I’ve not seen the source article with the full methodology, only the reports, but the main researcher Professor Plomin is extensively quoted.  However, he made the mistake of getting carried away by the Andy Murray fever that was gripping Britain last week to use Wimbledon to illustrate his theory:-

‘Everyone has assumed self confidence is a matter of environment.

‘Our research shows that it is certainly genetically influenced and that self confidence predicts achievement at school. It is the same in sport and we see it at Wimbledon.

‘A lot of the players are very good but there is something that goes beyond mere ability and it is the confidence in that ability.

‘Andy Murray seems to have amazing self belief whereas we all remember Tim Henman would play a few poor points and it seemed he would crumble – that difference may well be genetic.’

quote from Daily Mail

Is Tim Henman Really Genetically flawed?

Tim Henman was for many years Britain’s number 1 tennis player, winning over $11 million in his career and was at one time world number 4, before retiring at the end of 2007.  However, he never got to a  “major” final, let alone win one, and on 4 occasions lost a Wimbledon semi final.

So it was a bit unfortunate for the Professor that Andy Murray also lost at the semi final stage! However, just as I wouldn’t attribute Murray’s defeat to a “lack of confidence” nor would I label Henman with such personality traits simply from observing him on a tennis court (I assume Professor Plomin has never met either player).

On Friday Andy Murray was beaten by someone who played a better game of tennis – Andy Roddick.  And Tim Henman was unfortunate to be playing at the same time as Pete Sampras, who twice accounted for his Wimbledon semi final defeats.

Listening to the post match analysis,  one “expert” suggested that Murray hadn’t been aggressive enough. Interesting, as many had heralded a new era in British tennis with aggressive, surly Andy Murray stamping the memory of “nice” Tim Henman into the dust.tim

What I also found irksome about labelling Tim Henman as being genetically deprived of self confidence, was that he has been working over the Wimbledon fortnight as a commentator, summariser and general “expert” alongside established media players (and former Champions) like John McEnroe and Boris Becker.

He acquitted himself well in a discipline where he has no natural skill or particular charisma. For all we know he could have spent the past year being coached in how to appear natural and confident in front of a television camera. My point being, how can you label someone as being disadvantaged in life by a low self confidence personality trait, when he is speaking to millions of us via television looking as cool as a cucumber?

Did I Pass on a Low  Self Confidence Gene?

My other gripe about this research stems my own experience in being the father of non-identical twins.  Whilst identical twins, by definition, are born with similar weight, height, features etc. – the scope of variation in non-identical can be huge.

twinsFrom the outset one of my daughters was noticeably bigger, as well as having a different colour, and straighter, hair and other features. In fact as they grew up it was easier to note the differences rather than similarities. For the first 11 years of their lives they were forever in each others company (they were in the same class at school), yet two very different characters.

Going back to Professor Plomin’s research, to measure self confidence they got 7 – 10 year old children to rate their abilities in a variety of core subjects. Looking back on my twins at that age, I know one was more dominant than the other.  In the hothouse and claustrophobia of family and school life it was quite clear that taking the lead from her “bigger” sister was the simplest route to take for the other twin.

From the age of 11, when they changed school, my daughters have been in separate classes. Since 16 separate schools and in all likelihood, from October in different countries!  They are both self assured and show self confidence far ahead of what I exhibited at that age.  On Monday they are going to Gran Canaria on holiday with friends.

So, whilst I couldn’t really say I care that much about Tim Henman, it does irritate me no end that this research would suggest one of my daughters (and probably me as well as “carrier”) has a genetic defect in possessing a “low self confidence” gene.

As I discussed in the Myth of the Addictive Personality, when you start attributing problems to genetic factors then you start taking responsibility for change away from the individual. I’m sure someone is already trying to develop a “self confidence” drug.  Whatever our genetic disposition towards any sort of behaviour,  the environmental factors have far the greatest impact.

Top Two Photos by Koramchad and Mister-E on Flickr

Evan July 5, 2009 at 1:24 pm

How I wish this kind of nonsense research would just disappear! If only the media would point out the flaws. How does this nonsense get funding?

Like you I think the environment is far more important. See the well designed research of the Whitehall Studies and the book about them The Status Syndrome for the details.
.-= Evan´s last blog ..Living Authentically =-.

David July 5, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Thanks Evan for your comment and I will look up the book you suggested. It does remind me that I also have an excellent book on the topic of the importance of nurture, as opposed to nature, “They F*** You Up” by Oliver James. Despite the racy title it very much draws on research and has good discussions on the use of twins studies.

Find yourself with a smile... July 14, 2009 at 11:42 pm

A great post, David.

This one gets under my skin a bit as well… since I haven’t read the research I’ll do my best to keep the rant to a minimum…;^)

While I suspect that there is some basis to genetic ‘influence’ to self esteem and confidence… I think it is minor when compared to the influence our training and attitude plays.

No one competes at the top in any sport or other activity without tremendous training, and the development of tremendous confidence. At that level of training, any ‘genetic’ gift becomes more and more insignificant.

And no matter how good our ‘genetic gifts’ or trained in confidence may be, we can all work ourselves into a bad state. All the greats have had bad days.

What about people that are incredibly confident in one arena… but a bit uncertain in others? I’m good at teaching Karate, and I feel quite certain of myself when I do it… but I don’t know the first thing about playing a flute (or any musical instrument, for that matter), and I would be a bit short on self confidence if I were put in a situation where I had to.

Furthermore, in spite of any scientific basis for a ‘low self confidence’ gene… all it will be used for in practical life is an excuse. We already have plenty of excuses… where are they going with this research, anyway?…;^)

keep smiling,

.-= Find yourself with a smile…´s last blog ..Site Review: =-.

David July 18, 2009 at 10:09 am

Thanks for the comment. My main gripe with any argument for a genetic cause (to anything) is that it is taken that there is nothing we can do to change it. And like with this research, it gets presented in a very black and white way. As you say, even if there is a genetic influence it is relatively minor compared with the impact of environment, etc..

Konstantin D. A. Scheller July 24, 2009 at 12:04 am

Well, a bit weird commentry of you and the above comments – that you disagree with something does not mean that it is false, has flaws or is bad research, and even less does it mean that it should not be funded… and, well, to bash it without reading it… not exactly scientific either 😀

I got the article which you seem to comment on ( that’s the only article by plumin in the magazin for a few years), and following are some quotes…

from the abstract:
“Although it has been as-
sumed that the origins of SPAs are environmental, this ?rst
genetic analysis of SPAs yielded a heritability of 51% in a
sample of 3,785 pairs of twins, whereas shared environ-
ment accounted for only 2% of the variance in SPAs.”
and at the end (“discussion”):
“We conclude that, contrary to extant theories, SPAs are sub-
stantially in?uenced by genetic factors, and they are in?uenced
by genetic factors at least as much as IQ is.”
“Finding genetic in?uence on SPAs does not imply that SPAs are
impervious to environmental change. Moreover, although about
half the variance in SPAs is due to genetic factors, the rest is due
to environmental factors.”

at no point does he mention that there would be a “no confidence gene”. More exactly, the article is focused on finding the correlation of “self-perceived abilities” within pairs of twins. So he mentions a “SPA gene”) And there it is, the 51%. Which means, that the twins are likely to exhibit a similar level of SPA! This does not imply that they exhibit the same as their parents, this was not measured – but obviously, genetic means, there is something…

then, even if there was a self-confidence-in-a-certain-ability gene, that you don’t have and your wife does, or the other way around, means that there is a 50% chance the twins got it, so if they have a different level from you… maybe they have the gene of your wife? Or maybe even a combination of the two, something in between.

And then, the correlation is just 51%. That is a lot, but still shows that there is a lot of influence of environmental factors.

So, to sum it up… you or the daily mail (which is not exactly known as a newspaper that’s worth the paper it’s printed on) got a few things wrong, which is, that a) the article was not merely about “self-confidence”, but about believe in one’s own ability (in the measured case it was school achievement in math, language, etc.)) b) it was not about a certain moment but about general performance (as measured by years-end grades) c) the number is just 51% which leaves a lot of environmental variability.

Oh, and the article at no point mentions tennis, that’s solely that Daily Mail cr** that says it and I guess they asked him about the player or something…

.-= Konstantin D. A. Scheller´s last blog ..Thought of the Moment – #0000006 – If life is an illusion =-.

Vanessa July 24, 2009 at 5:38 am

Yeah, I don’t buy that for a second. I am much more of a nurture vs. nature type of person.
.-= Vanessa´s last blog ..It’s okay to… blame the bad in your life on random shit. =-.

David July 24, 2009 at 8:13 am

Thanks for your comments
Konstantin – I’m certainly no fan of the Daily Mail, but if you do a google search there are many articles with the same interpretation of the research. And from the Telegraph, Plomin is quoted “”Our research shows that it is certainly genetically influenced and that self confidence predicts achievement at school.”. Looking back at the Mail article, it was definitely Plomin who introduced tennis into the argument and suggested/implied that Henman was flawed. And, whilst its not a direct quote from her, his colleague Ms Greven suggested “further research could now be done to establish which are the ‘confidence genes’.”
The other problem, of course, is that terms like “self confidence” “self esteem” etc. have different meanings to different people, and we could debate all day as to whether “self perceived abilities” is the same as “self confidence”
Thanks for your robust contribution to the debate, and bringing the source article to the table

Eva-Lena July 24, 2009 at 5:33 pm

I think that we are born with a certain (various from person to person) degree of fear, for example for trying new things. Some persons are not afraid of anything, so for them nothing feels challenging. It’s much about chemical reactions.

If you are afraid of many things already as a child, you must work harder during your phases in life to get what some others can get much easier; some almost automatically.

And you must maybe work active for changing attitudes you received/developed from early childhood experiences.

So, I think we learn ourselves to get much of our self confidence, but that we start from different areas and also get it by different experiences. I also think that the parents communication with the children affect a lot.

But I am just thinking – am no expert at all. 😉

Cliff Sutton August 10, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Let’s throw another factor into the mix!
Self Confidence is a combination of lots of things, genetics included, which influence the level we possess. How about time of the year you are born. This insteresting study showed that kids born Jan. to June are more likely to make it to the NHL than those born July to December.
Interesting to consider this in light of self confidence. Self confidence partly based on relationship to peers in terms of maturity, size, comptence. Once again many factors, many of which we can influence and therefore change outcomes.

Michael December 26, 2010 at 2:10 pm

It’s all in the head. I’ve played sports professionally when I was young and it’s not about genes, it’s all in the head and how you focus yourself and view yourself among others and how you see your development. Psychology is a great part and should never be under-estimated.

William June 20, 2011 at 10:06 pm

I think it has more to do with how society treats you.

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