The Donald Trump Effect — Why self-confidence is not a very reliable sociometric and competence gauge

The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.

Charles Bukowski

Our internal states like happiness are evolutionarily programmed to lead us in decision-making. They are gages that measure external input and compare it to pre-programmed values in order to check if things are going right. Happiness (life satisfaction) measures the overall course, like a sat nav that tells us we are on the right way.

Self-confidence is a bit harder to understand. It should measure our social standing as a sociometric gauge. In a way, it reflects our popularity, which from an evolutionary point of view depends more on competence and status for men (provisioning profile) and more on social integration (pro-social profile) for women.

What we often find in reality is, however, that less competent people are more self-assured and have more self-confidence than more competent (see Bukovski quote above). This effect is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. WTF is going on here? A measuring instrument that does the opposite of what it is supposed to do? It’s unreliable for both the individual and as a social cue for others. Of course, evolution would allow for some “freeloading” and “fake it until you make it” stuff here, but the percentage of such fakers could never be high and yet the Dunning-Kruger effect seems to be the rule rather than the exception. One is certainly reminded of a recent American president here. An incompetent president rules with high self-confidence while at the same time it is common among highly competent American college professors to suffer from imposter syndrome.

Where does this confusion come from? Evolution didn’t make a mistake here. I have argued that our minds are derived from three different evolutionary tribes: foragers, farmers and pastoralists. The majority of academics belong to the forager type. Considering that autism runs more frequently in families of academics, it is not very surprising that many academics are socially awkward themselves and therefore feel socially more inept and less confident. But why should they also feel more insecure when it comes to their competence? Exactly because they are forager types, who are highly egalitarian. In forager societies individuals who are feeling better than the rest are typically ridiculed, which is a very serious matter in forager societies as this is the last stage before ostracism which comes down to saying goodbye to your reproductive potential. So, sudden success may hit a forager type unexpectedly and it may take a long time for self-esteem to catch up with the real competence.

The second most popular TED Talk of all times is by Amy Cuddy, in which she tells us that we can feel more self-confident and powerful just by power-posing and repeating the mantra “fake it till you make it”. Her ideas have been disproven, by the way, and yet people love watching her video. This fake it till you make it philosophy may be very useful for forager types with low self-confidence. It hardly would have made Trump a more competent president though, even if he had served for another term.

Can we have too much self-confidence? Well, yes of course. Self-confidence should be a reliable measure of competence. If I ride a motorbike and I have too much confidence the risk of having an accident increases. American kids are the ones who have the highest self-confidence levels in the world, while consistently scoring low on international rankings for educational attainment. The situation is reversed in many Asian countries. Could it be that American parents have been instilling too much self-confidence into their kids? Teens who are too self-confident are often at risk of performing poorly or even dropping out of school (the Donald Trump effect).

We don’t want our kids to grow up with super big egos, but with healthy self-esteem. For many forager-type kids that is very hard anyway. As I have argued many of them are found among neurodiverse children (ASD, ADHD, gifted, geeks, etc.) for whom it is nearly impossible to grow up with healthy self-confidence. Many of them get bullied, and even if they don’t get bullied they often grow up as outsiders, all of which take a huge toll on their self-confidence.

Interestingly, Trump kept referring to how much people like him more often than to how competent he was. An indication that his evolutionary profile is ironically rather pro-social than provisioning. This is somewhat hard to believe for someone who treated both his staff and his family in a quite antisocial way.

We don’t want to subscribe to a general “fake it till you make it” mantra, but achieve realistic self-confidence levels. Everyone would benefit from that.

Originally published at on May 28, 2021.