Thursday, 25 June 2015

Here's a technique that helps self-critical people build confidence from a taste of success

The directed abstraction technique acts a springboard,
allowing the timid to gain confidence from initial success
Last week Kathleen finally put aside her fears about public speaking to give a presentation… and it went pretty well! But when you caught her at lunch today and asked if she wanted future opportunities to present, you found she was as pessimistic about her ability as ever.

This story reflects an unfortunate truth: people with low self-belief are liable to hold onto negative assumptions about themselves despite concrete evidence of the contrary; that is, they fail to "generalise from success". Thankfully, in a new paper, psychologist Peter Zunick and his colleagues describe a technique, called directed abstraction, that can help the self-critical change their mindsets.

Direct abstraction means stopping to consider how a specific success may have more general implications – this is the abstraction part – and also ensuring this thinking is directed towards how personal qualities were key to the success. Let’s see what this means in practice.

In a first study, 86 students guessed the number of dots flashed up on screen, and were given fake but convincing positive feedback on their performance. Half the students were then asked to explain how they completed the task, which kept their thoughts on a very concrete, specific level. The other half were prompted to engage in directed abstraction by completing the sentence: “I was able to score very high on the test because I am: ... ” This query is not about how, but why – a more abstract consideration – and also focuses on the individual’s own qualities.

Engaging in directed abstraction appeared to give a particular boost to those participants who’d earlier reported believing they have low competence day to day:  afterwards, they not only had more confidence in their estimation ability (than similarly self-critical control participants), they also believed they would do better at similar tasks (like guessing jelly beans in a jar) that they faced in the future.

In another experiment, Zunick’s research team sifted through hundreds of students to find 59 with low faith in their public speaking skills. Each of them was given a few minutes to prepare and then make a speech to camera on the topic of transition to college life, a fairly easy one to tackle. Each participant then watched themselves on video, with the experimenter offering reassuring feedback and implying that they did surprisingly well.

The same participants then engaged in directed abstraction (or the control "how" query) before being thrown once more into the breach with a second speechmaking experience, this time on a tough topic, with no coddling feedback afterward – this was the real deal. Did the directed abstraction participants gain confidence from their early success that could survive a rockier second round? They did, reporting more confidence for future public speaking than their peers.

The technique seems to be appropriate for a range of settings, although obviously it’s only useful to use it following an event that can be reasonably seen as a success, otherwise it could backfire. And it’s simple to use to help a friend or yourself, just by taking the time after a success to think through what it owes to your personal qualities. Then confidence can follow.


Zunick PV, Fazio RH, & Vasey MW (2015). Directed abstraction: Encouraging broad, personal generalizations following a success experience. Journal of personality and social psychology, 109 (1), 1-19 PMID: 25984786

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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