Science of Doubt: The Recall Irony Experiment

I’ve been researching doubts these last few weeks; here is a fascinating experiment I found.

This experiment shows a sad truth about people with high self-doubt.

In 2002, researchers put 301 students in front of a computer with the following question:


“Please write down a few examples of self-confidence.”

For some of these students, the researchers requested two examples. For others, they asked eight examples of self-confidence. And more to others.


The students also filled a few tests that measured:

  • How difficult it was to retrieve the memories,
  • How confident they felt.


With all these results, the researchers analyzed the data and extracted two groups:

  • 😎 People with high self-esteem
  • 😢 People with low self-esteem.


When they looked at the rating for each group, this is what they found:

If you have high self-esteem, when I ask you to recall memories of the times you felt confident, you will be more confident at the end of the exercise.

Confidence multiplies.

If you have low self-esteem, and I ask you to recall the same thing, you will end up with LESS confidence.

😎 x πŸ’­ = 😎😎 😢 x πŸ’­ = 😢😢

Thinking about confidence multiplies your confidence or your lack of one.

🧐 That is frustrating.

People with high self-doubt seem to be stressed by the difficulty of the exercise.

The others don’t.

πŸ™ƒ The irony.

I find this (edited) quote almost hilarious:

The irony is that those with high self-doubt could have taken advantage of the CONTENT of the memory. Instead, they focus on the PROPERTIES of the retrieval experience.

πŸ“” So here is a tool we can all try:

What if we keep a journal of the GOOD past decisions we took and make it easy to access. In our bookmark bar, for example.

😢 x πŸ”– = 😎 ?

Would that lets EVERYONE focus on the CONTENT of the memory?



  1. Hermann AD, Leonardelli GJ, Arkin RM. Self-Doubt and Self-Esteem: A Threat from within. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2002;28(3):395-408.


Laurent Senta

I wrote software for large distributed systems, web applications, and even robots. These days I focus on making developers, creators, and humans more productive through