Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham
Andy Murray’s historic victory appears founded on a mental rather than a physical transformation. Commentators, plus the tennis star himself, have been discussing how his previously hindering self-doubt appears to have been finally conquered.
Many attribute this new self-confidence to his recent Olympic Gold Medal victory over Roger Federer. It was positive feedback: confirmation of the ability we all knew he had, but did he?
Yet this just deepens the psychological enigma at the heart of this result. The cure for self-doubt appears a confidence-enhancing triumph, but you can’t win until you overcome your self-doubt?
Given chronic self-doubt is a common cause of anxiety and depression (women seem to suffer more from it than men); this catch 22 seriously impedes the well-being of millions. It might be the key psychological factor which explains why so many are frustrated in their attempts to achieve relationship, work, career, friends or family goals.
Serious self-doubt predicts failure in life because even when upset or fearful, the confident persist. Doggedness is at the heart of all successful performance – as Andy Murray’s own personal journey exemplifies. He kept going despite what was close to becoming a world record for number of appearances in Grand Slam finals without victory.
Self-doubters, in contrast, are quicker to disengage from any task. Elenor Rooseveldt said, “Whether you believe you can or cannot: you are right”. Confidence, matched by ability is what works.
One reason for this is self-doubters see upset in the face of difficulty as early signs another failure is inevitable. If feeling stressed is a sign you aren’t good enough, then you anxiously turn your attention away from the task at hand, towards the symptoms of upset. You wallow in your despair, rendering it worse because of this focus.
It was intriguing to notice how quickly Andy Murray put behind him various frustrations during the course of the final, as opposed to a previous tendency for grimacing and scowling longer following an upset. He seemed to have learnt what psychologists have long been shouting at the TV during his matches; reframe and move on. Learn from experiences: keep focused.
Those with higher self-confidence as opposed to self-doubters experience less distress when frustrated by an obstacle, because their focus is back on their goal more quickly, and away from any disappointment.
At its very worse, some sufferers from self-doubt begin to doubt their ability to form any judgement about anything. Every thought becomes a circle of obsession over what anything could mean, or what you can ever be certain about.
Charles Carver and Michael Scheier, psychologists based at the University of Miami and Carnegi-Mellon University in the USA, and world authorities on confidence, in an article in the ‘International Journal of Educational Research’, conclude doubt, ‘is a cloud that can hamper the full expression of even the greatest natural ability’.
But now a team of psychologists lead by Aaron Wichman and Gifford Weary from Western Kentucky and Stanford Universities, as well as other institutions, have recently published an intriguing psychological solution to the problem of self-doubt. This is part of a new movement in therapy which is not about simple and quick reassurance that self-doubt is unrealistic and should be abandoned, but instead goes into the specifics of the doubt in more detail.
Their research paper entitled ‘Doubting one’s doubt: A formula for conﬁdence?’ suggested that actively inducing people to doubt, could be better than simple reassurance. Published in the ‘Journal of Experimental Social Psychology’, the study found that doubters could be encouraged to ‘doubt their doubt’, which paradoxically made them more confident.
Self-doubters could benefit in some sense from healthy doubt. The psychologists argue the difference between certainty that one is going to fail and concern that one might fail, could be the contrast between hopelessness, and careful preparation for success. They go on to contend that the difference between being certain of one’s agonizing insecurity and lack of worth, and being merely uncertain about it, could mean the crucial difference between despair and seeking therapy.
These psychologists conclude sometimes, doubt reduction is best achieved by instilling doubt in one’s doubt. In a similar vein Tim Woodman, Sally Akehurst, Lew Hardy and Stuart Beattie from Bangor and Aberystwyth Universities, United Kingdom, have recently published a study on the benefits of doubt entitled, ‘Self-conﬁdence and performance: A little self-doubt helps’. The study was inspired by previous research in sports performance, for example studies of pistol shooters and golfers found greater self-conﬁdence was linked with poorer performance.
Published in the academic journal, ‘Psychology of Sport and Exercise’, the study found inducing a bit of self-doubt produced better performance. The authors conclude high self-conﬁdence is not always the boon it’s marketed as. It can lead to risk-taking, complacency, reduced preparation and practice time, producing poorer results.
Women are generally found to suffer more self-doubt than men, despite no difference in ability; precisely why they are often more conscientious and reliable work colleagues. Yet their self-doubt also sometimes inhibits them from taking risks in demonstrating flair, which is unfortunately what often gets noticed and promotion.
It would appear there’s a delicate balance over doubt, and that some self-doubt motivates the exertion needed to master challenges. Andy Murray may have been deservedly celebrating his historic success last night, but it didn’t seem in danger of turning him into the kind of fist-pumping, high self confidence athlete of an Usain Bolt.
Given we now know there is healthy, as opposed to unhealthy, self-doubt, this is reassuring.
Although his self-doubt prevents him conceding this, it’s the strongest possible psychological sign that this Grand Slam win, might, just might, not be Andy Murray’s last.