The 2 types of confidence, according to science (and how to harness them)

You know confidence matters. But did you know that it has different dimensions? Understanding and harnessing epistemic and social confidence, two key confidence types identified by science, can help you feel more confident, project a stronger presence, and get better results at work.

Perhaps you’re confident in some situations but crippled by self-doubt in others. Maybe you feel sure of yourself when it comes to your knowledge but crumble in social settings. It turns out this is not random, and it doesn’t make or break your confidence as a person.

Once you wrap your head around the concepts of epistemic and social confidence, you’ll be able to assess your strengths and areas of improvement in the confidence spectrum and build on them.

Here is what these two dimensions of confidence are and how you can use them to succeed, according to business administration, communication, and organizational psychology experts.

Epistemic vs. social confidence

“Whereas social confidence is the projection of being self-assured and comfortable in your own skin, epistemic confidence in the strong and often unshakeable belief you are right. The differences here are best seen through the eyes of others,” says Rebecca Weintraub, Ph.D. emerita director of the online Master of Communication Management Program at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

“Your social confidence communicates interest in others rather than a more self-focused effort to be found interesting by others,” she says. On the other hand, epistemic confidence is a “horse of a different color.”

“This kind of confidence lies in your own certainty and belief in concepts, data, analysis, and the like. While people with social confidence can also have great certainty, they are often willing to change their minds when presented with new data. Their confidence is not in their rightness but rather comes from integrating their perceptions with those of others.”

How each one of the confidence types shows up at work

If it makes sense in theory but you’re wondering how it applies in practice, start paying attention to your own confidence highs or lows in the workplace to get a better idea of the nuances between epistemic and social confidence.

“Epistemic confidence can be exemplified as a professional who masters her practice, such as a good software programmer or a lab researcher who goes deep into a field of knowledge and can apply this knowledge to reach objectives,” says Eduardo Watanabe, Professor of Business Administration at CETYS University in Mexico.

Joanna Lovering, executive presence coach and founder of Copper + Rise, says that other examples of epistemic confidence include expressing certainty and self-assurance. “For example, how sure you are about the answer: ‘I have 99.9% confidence that X is the answer.’ This type of confidence is internal–it doesn’t matter what other people may think,” she says.

According to her, behaviors like stating guarantees, an unwavering sense of what is in scope and what is out of scope for a project, or an unwillingness to budge or negotiate on a path forward because of your belief in making the right decision, are also signs of epistemic confidence.

On the other hand, social confidence plays out in group settings and how confident you seem within a group. “When you speak, do other people listen? Do people assume you’re supposed to be there?” says Lovering. “Social confidence can look like speaking up in meetings, verbally expressing uncertainty, asking the first question during an all-hands meeting or deliberately asking for feedback.”

How to make the most of each confidence type

Both types of confidence can support your career evolution. But how can you make the most of them?

Epistemic confidence

“Epistemic confidence is all about having confidence in one’s competence. To harness it, you need systems in place that develop and confirm your competence,” says Lovering, who suggests the following actionable steps for unleashing the power of epistemic confidence:

  • Know your strengths and leverage them: Get clear on the things you do well and develop ways to integrate them into daily life.
  • Track your successes: Systematically archive your accomplishments in order to have data points that boost future epistemic confidence.
  • Continuing education: Deepen your knowledge of an expertise.

But you’ll want to be careful about blind spots. According to Weintraub, epistemic confidence needs to be tempered with open-mindedness so you don’t become overly rigid and immediately reject different perspectives or opposing views.

“Rigid and unswerving confidence in one’s own belief systems shuts down other perspectives. While definitely reinforcing relationships with those who share the same beliefs, this assuredness is likely to create skepticism at best and antagonism at worst in the reactions of those who do not,” she says.

For example, Weintraub once coached a CEO who everyone defined as very confident. He possessed both epistemic and social confidence. “He connected with people no matter the venue. Very telegenic, he was brilliant in large satellite broadcast employee meetings. He focused on the people he was speaking to in smaller settings such that people walked away basking in his interest and connection.”

“He was also quite certain that he was the smartest bear in the room. While he professed a desire to have others push back on his ideas, in truth, it was rarely a good career move to do so. His epistemic confidence was born out of his long history of corporate success, reinforcing his belief that he alone had the right answer.”

That belief was a huge downside, as it discouraged healthy debate, and it’s one you’ll want to be mindful of if you have high epistemic confidence.

Social confidence

Social confidence is “what executive presence is all about: projecting what other people perceive as confidence,” says Lovering.

And it’s built on empathy and EQ. “A key factor to social confidence is empathy towards your coworkers; understanding people’s motivations and state of mind is a cornerstone into establishing a meaningful connection that can drive the desired response like embracing a project,” says Watanabe.

According to him, if you want to get buy-in at work, tapping into others’ intrinsic motivation is way more powerful and long-lasting than externally imposing your decisions — and social confidence is a powerful tool to do just that.

But if you want to truly leverage social confidence, it’s important to remember that it’s always measured in how others perceive you, says Weintraub.

“When giving a presentation, own the room. Stand straight and tall. Maintain eye contact with the audience, not the slides. When joining a meeting, greet people warmly. Show interest in them, their activities, their perspectives,” she says.

“If there is a chance to chat with others, take advantage of it. Let others see your humanness. Sometimes the most socially confident action is being able to apologize when faced with objections or upset or negative feedback.And, above all, focus on being interested, not interesting.”

Finally, embrace these tips from Lovering to become a social confidence master:

  • Eliminate self-deprecating language. Many people, especially women, will purposely soften their statements in order not to come off as direct or harsh. They’ll say things like, “I’m no expert, but…” or “…but I actually have no idea.” Eliminating this negative talk will help you come off in a better light, even if you are wrong!
  • Your colleagues want to work with humans, not robots. Expressing a little vulnerability by saying things like, “I’m not exactly sure how to move forward” or “I think you could really help me with this” will garner trust from others.
  • Dress for success! You’ve heard it a million times: “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” Like it or not, people will judge you based on how you look. Step up your wardrobe game and not only will your colleagues see you in a more positive light, but you’ll also actually be more productive.