Monthly Archives: May 2020

Confidence Placebos

When it’s time to perform — on stage, in the boardroom, in the bedroom — confidence is the essential mental component to strong execution. Even solo activities, like being able to fall asleep at night, are aided by self-confidence (“I’m a good sleeper!”).

The substantive way to increase your confidence in life, it seems, is to rack up a series of wins. Experience = confidence (usually). Of course, accumulating experience takes time. And if you’re always pushing yourself into uncomfortably new situations, as high performers tend to do, you often won’t have experience to draw upon that can fuel your inner confidence.

So there are a range of more “shallow” ways to increase confidence — tips and tricks and hacks that function like a placebo effect for confidence. Things that make you feel more confident, even if, as a matter of fact, there’s no substantive reason why the hack should increase your real-world performance.

Superstitious routines come to mind. The baseball player who taps on home plate with his bat a few times, in exactly the same way, before each pitch. The public speaker who re-ties her shoes in exactly the same way just before going on stage.

Following a “meaningless” routine can calm the mind, which creates the space for quiet confidence to flood the mind. A hyperactive mind is rarely a confident one.

Luxury goods can generate a confidence placebo effect; in fact, I’d argue this placebo constitutes most of their practical value. Wearing a fancy watch, toting a fancy hand bag. These are things that do nothing to actually help you perform in the business room but they can lend a certain swagger to the person showing off the luxury good. Even if no one sees the watch on your arm the entire meeting — so there’s no external signaling going on, which is the other function to a luxury good — if you feel like a baller while wearing it, you’ll feel more confident doing whatever you’re doing.

Enhancements to physical appearance serve as a confidence placebo. Women wear makeup and sometimes don’t look any better physically as a result but feel more attractive, which results in confidence, and confidence tends to be a very attractive trait. Mission accomplished, if indirectly.

A subtle example of a confidence placebo in business is how we rely upon and invoke studies and data. Many studies about business and success are bullshit. You know how it goes: Seven graduate students hung out in a lab and one person who was wearing a brown jacket decided he didn’t want to buy the product and so now we must conclude a Very Important Fact about all humans who wear brown jackets. We cling to studies and reports and data in part because it gives us confidence in the intuitions we want to act on. It gives us confidence in the anecdotes we’ve heard and want to synthesize. When you’re a CEO and about to walk on stage in front of your employees to announce a pivotal decision, knowing that “some researchers at Yale” support some element of your decision gives you the confidence to announce, with a clear voice, your point of view. Confidence aids decisiveness.

If you’ve read a bestselling book about sleep that’s replete with faulty studies but your knowledge of the “studies” enhances your confidence about sleep — I’ve perfectly calibrated the temperature of the room to what studies say is the optimal temperature! — then you may well sleep better. And if the “data” behind power posing is questionable, well, hey, if power posing gives you greater confidence before performing, it’s probably still worth it.

There can be nothing wrong with placebos. And remember that — studies show! — that even if you’re aware that you’re benefitting from a placebo effect, it doesn’t fully negate the effect. So knowing which placebos help with confidence in-the-moment can give any performer an edge.

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When confidence is helpful for performance is an interesting nuance here. Obviously at the time of performance you want to be confident. But if you’re too confident too far ahead of the time of performance it might lead you to under prepare beforehand. Suppose you need to deliver a key presentation at work in a month’s time. If you’re too confident, too early on, you might not spend the cycles preparing that actually will improve performance substantively. Confidence placebos are ideal just before the time of performance.

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(Hat tip to Russ Roberts, Steve Dodson, and Andy McKenzie for conversations that inspired and helped make up this post.)

Nothing in Life is Perfect, Permanent, or Personal

In Buddhism there’s a concept called The Three Characteristics. The Three Characteristics define all experiences in life: Dukkha (unsatisfactoriness or suffering), Annica (impermanence), and Anata (not-self).  If you examine the nature of each life experience that you have, the Buddha argued, you’ll find an element of each of the Three Characteristics in it.

No positive experience is completely satisfying; there’s always some lingering unsatisfactoriness. And of course there are plenty of negative experiences, too.

No experience is forever; it ends at some point, including life itself.

And no experience is inextricably tied up with “you”; the experience relates to component parts of an experience that do not amount to a stable “you.”

Buddhism argues that the highest happiness is peace. Put differently, being at peace with the nature of reality — the unbending laws of the universe, which includes the three characteristics — is key to deep happiness.

The principle of Three Characteristics can be valuable in understanding business and life in a non-Buddhist context. Let’s try to map them into lay terms:

Nothing is perfect, permanent, or personal.

Perfect. If you strive for excellence, as I do, you’ll never be fully, totally satisfied. Nothing can ever be perfect. Be at peace with that.

Permanent. This too shall pass. Whatever is going well right now, whatever is going poorly — it’s not permanent. Be at peace with that.

Personal. Whatever is happening to your business, don’t take it personally. It’s bigger than you. More to the point, your company mission is bigger than any one person, including you. You are merely one person in a larger ecosystem of forces that shape the success or failure of your business. Be at peace with that.

Being at peace with these realities is easier said than done. In fact, developing this kind of peace may require nothing less than an ardent spiritual undertaking to fully internalize what these truths mean.

But even at a surface level, I think the 3 Characteristics can be useful reminders to laypeople. To me it’s one of the more helpful applications of Buddhist thinking to real life.