Full of confidence

10 November 2017

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EVERY office has one: the man who has blagged his way to a position way beyond his abilities. He has an unwavering sense of his own brilliance, and is both hugely irritating and strangely admirable.

Well, the bad news from The Confidence Trick (Radio 4, Monday of last week) is that such people are ubiquitous in modern office culture; the good news is that there is a label for their condition, Dunning-Kruger syndrome: the psychological state by which people of low ability are incapable of recognising their own inabilities.

Laura Barton is the perfect guide to confidence or the lack of it, since, as her delivery is designed to show, she is someone of pathological unassertiveness. The fact that she has landed a three-part radio series, is a regular columnist for The Guardian, and has almost 8000 Twitter followers might suggest otherwise, but we have, I suppose, to take her word and the evidence of her school reports as proof.

Her writer-friend Marina Hyde is similarly sceptical about the benefits of confidence. Everyone has an opinion nowadays, Ms Hyde complains, taking time out of her regular opinion-writing for the same newspaper.

It is the gender pay-gap that turns this issue into a political one. Apparently, men making a job application over-estimate their skill set by 30 per cent, while women will more typically feel the need to meet all the expectations of a job spec. before applying. At least, that is what some no doubt over-confident statistician has declared.

The problem is that, ask most people, and they will tell you that they are, underneath it all, timid as mice. In the words of the tea-towel epigram quoted on Big Problems with Helen Keen (Radio 4, Friday) “Don’t compare how you feel to how other people appear”.

Keen’s is a comedy-meets-science that has just enough of both to justify its scheduling in a mid-morning Radio 4 slot. I am grateful to Keen for providing a term to describe my six-year-old son after a long day at school. “Hangry” is hungry plus angry: an emotional state that can be explained by a deficit of blood sugar stimulating the production of extra adrenalin. Give the little chap a couple of biscuits and he’s right as rain.

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Less convincing was the suggestion that introverted people salivate more; and Keen’s test with a live audience was foiled by what we might term the “Barton paradox”: namely, that anybody with the confidence to come up on stage and participate in an experiment is therefore not sufficiently introverted to be appropriate for the experiment.

The equivalent slot on Wednesday is currently occupied by another comic doing psychology lite. Mae Martin is an Edinburgh award-wining stand-up, the topic of whose Guide to 21st Century Addiction (Radio 4, Wednesday) was her own childhood addiction to stand-up comedy.

Her account of hanging around Comedy Stores, culminating in her first, ill-judged appearance on stage, was a wonderfully paced piece of absurdism which made you overlook the fact that, were she not on Radio 4 entertaining us with the tale, she would be regarded as a potentially dangerous stalker.

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