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When you think of some of the most passionate, persistent, and eloquent advocates for social change—William Wilberforce, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr.—you think of men who were confident in the rightness of their cause.

But a new study published in Psychological Science says that it's doubt, not confidence, that leads individuals to advance their beliefs and attempt to persuade others.

For their study, Northwestern University researchers David Gal and Derek Rucker asked students to write out their views on animal testing. Yet only half of the students were allowed to use their preferred hand. That's because earlier studies have shown that people have less confidence in what they are writing when using their weak hand. Then students were asked to write something persuasive with their preferred hand. The students who had been induced to lose confidence wrote significantly more words in an attempt to persuade others.

Other experiments were run dealing with vegetarianism and the ultimate proselytizing vehicle: Mac computers. In every case, doubt turned the students into stronger advocates, particularly if the belief was important to them.

The researchers said their work (which was based on earlier studies about enduring beliefs after failed religious prophecies) offers a warning to anyone on the receiving end of an advocacy attempt.

"Although it is natural to assume that a persistent and enthusiastic advocate of a belief is brimming with confidence, the advocacy might in fact signal that the individual is boiling over with doubt," they concluded.

Who doesn't want to think this is true, especially after a quick read of the latest screed from a New Atheist or, for that matter, enduring an overwritten post on ...

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In Praise of Confidence
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March 2011

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