Brain power

Is confidence more a personality trait or an ability trait?

Confidence has been found to be a predictor of academic achievement, but unlike IQ, self-confidence can potentially be influenced to improve academic results. Because of this, confidence has recently been identified as important.

A recent study1 compares the two methodologies for measuring self-confidence. These are a “self-report” measure, and what is described as an “online” measure (which is unrelated to the use of the word “online” in the context of the internet and computer networks). The self-report measure uses questionnaires to capture a self-assessment of confidence, where respondents reflect upon personal experiences and tendencies. The online measure asks respondents to rate how confident they are that their answer to a questions was correct.

The online measures in the study were attached to tests of both fluid and crystallized intelligence. As described in Wikipedia, fluid intelligence is the capacity to reason and solve novel problems, independent of any knowledge from the past, and crystallized intelligence is the ability to use skills, knowledge, and experience. Crystallized intelligence is not the same as memory, but does rely on accessing information from long-term memory.

To explore how confidence functions across the lifespan, the study included an age comparison between a young adult sample (30 years and under) and an older adult sample (65 years and over). The young adults were university psychology students, and the older adults were a community sample that had previously been recruited to take part in university psychology studies.


The study findings were:

  • The main finding was that self-report and online measures of confidence define two different but partly correlated factors
  • The self-report measures sit closer to personality, being very closely related to the personality trait emotional stability
  • The online measures sit closer to ability
  • A general confidence factor was identified from the online measures, and found in both the young and older adults
  • Older adults had higher self-report self-confidence
  • Older adults also tended to be more overconfident in their judgments for online measures, and this overconfidence was more pronounced in the online measures attached to fluid ability than to crystallized ability.

Limitations and future research

The study authors recognise the limitations of using psychology students as the young adults, with course entry based on academic merit meaning that a higher level of achievement in ability tasks would be expected. The study design was also not well suited to the older adults, with the requirement for this sample to participate through the internet using their own computer causing a higher drop-out rate in the older adults. The cross sectional design used to look at confidence across the lifespan was also problematic. A longitudinal study would have been more desirable.

The authors recommend replication with larger samples and a wider range of ability measures.


  1. Burns, K. M., Burns, N. R., & Ward, L. (2016). Confidence – More a Personality or Ability Trait? It Depends on How It Is Measured: A Comparison of Young and Older Adults. Frontiers in psychology, 7.
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Also published on Medium.

Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes ( is a knowledge management (KM), environmental management, and education professional with over 30 years of experience in Australia and China. His work has received high-level acclaim and been recognised through a number of significant awards. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group at Wageningen University and Research, and holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction. He is also the editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine (, and teaches in the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) Certified High-school Program (CHP).

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