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Confidence in Scotland Discussion Paper


Confidence in Scotland: DISCUSSION PAPER


Does confidence matter?

1 There is little research evidence on confidence, but a good deal about the related phenomena of optimism and self-esteem. Pessimism and low self-esteem are linked to a number of social and economic challenges. Some evidence suggests that pessimism is a causal factor in poorer educational and job performance, lower longevity, depression and suicide. Low self-esteem is a risk factor for suicide, suicide attempts, depression, victimisation by others, adolescent eating disorders, teenage pregnancy and poor economic outcomes.

What are levels of confidence like in Scotland?

2 Many people in Scotland recognise an issue around low confidence, but the evidence is patchy. One study of school-age children found that in Scotland they ranked 23rd out of 29 countries in terms of confidence. Confidence levels among school children in Scotland appear to have risen between 1994 and 2002. While there is little direct evidence about confidence, it is clear that some of the major challenges faced by Scotland - rates of suicide, depression, low life-expectancy, relatively low business start-ups - can be linked to pessimism.

What contributes to confidence?

3 No single factor shapes confidence. Factors include genetics, age, gender, relationships (particularly with parents), unemployment, educational opportunities, participation in volunteering, or arts, sports and cultural opportunities. Wider cultural factors are also important, such as the extent to which the culture promotes modesty, the nature of public debate, and portrayals of success and failure.

4 The evidence suggests that optimism and self-esteem can be learned: from parents, in schools, and in a range of other settings, for example care provisions, clinical settings, prisons, in the workplace, through further and higher education, or as part of vocational training programmes.

5 Low confidence is being recognised as an issue across Scotland, and in other countries. However it is not an issue which government can tackle alone. Large-scale changes in attitudes can only be brought about if a wide range of individuals and organisations from across Scottish life are involved. A broad debate is needed, and it is hoped that this paper will play a role in helping to stimulate a debate.


6 Confidence is an issue of concern to Scottish Ministers. In A Partnership for a Better Scotland, (May 2003), the Scottish Executive committed itself to developing a "confident, democratic Scotland".

7 There has been widespread recognition of the issue. The publication of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence1 by Dr Carol Craig in 2003 provoked a flurry of press and academic interest in the topic. The idea of low confidence in Scotland was also picked up by other commentators including Neal Ascherson and Wendy Alexander. Others have focused on the issue of happiness and well-being. 2 Conferences in November 2003 "Towards a Confident Scotland" and November 2004 "Scotland's Tipping Point" attracted widespread interest, as did the Scottish Council for Development and Industry's annual conference earlier that year which took self-belief as its theme.

8 The perceived lack of confidence in Scotland seems paradoxical in the context of the very high achievements of individual Scottish people and their historical contribution to the wider world. Not only have Scotland and Scottish people made a significant contribution in the past, but there are many examples of world-class achievements among people in Scotland today.

9 Despite this seeming paradox, there is a widespread perception that Scotland suffers from a lack of confidence. In this context, the Strategy Unit has sought to undertake an analytical assessment of confidence in Scotland, assembling material which reviews the evidence for a lack of confidence in Scottish society; looks at the impact of a lack of confidence and what contributes to confidence.

10 This paper has been drawn together following desk-based research by the Strategy Unit, discussions with 19 external and 32 internal contributors and was informed by an initial evidence review conducted by the Office of the Chief Researcher in the Scottish Executive.

11 The Executive aims to improve tangible outcomes for people in Scotland, as well as how they feel about themselves and their lives. This review has therefore attempted to focus on what we know about socio-psychological phenomena which may be barriers to success. Lacking confidence, having low self-esteem or being a pessimist are not only problems for mental well-being, they may also mean that people in Scotland fail to achieve all that they are capable of achieving.

12 This review acknowledges that the population of Scotland is diverse and the experiences of the population vary significantly. People in Scotland, like people everywhere, fall somewhere along a spectrum between negative self-esteem and highly positive self-esteem. Scotland contains a mix of optimists and pessimists.


13 Confidence has not been well defined in the psychological literature. The word in English comes from the Latin fidere meaning "to trust". It is defined both as a personal attribute, "belief in one's own abilities, self-assurance" and as external, "trust in a person or thing". 3

14 This review has looked at confidence at a number of levels beyond the individual - relationship, community and societal. As such it has drawn on work relating to social capital which can be defined as "the collective component of human capital and collective human values and relations". 4 It has also drawn on work looking at trust, defined as "reliance on and confidence in the truth, worth, reliability, etc. of a person or thing". 5 In this review the word "confidence" is used interchangeably and as a short-hand for self-esteem and optimism.


15 Confidence has received very little formal study; however, there is a good deal of research looking at the related concepts of optimism and self-esteem.


16 Optimists, as defined by psychologists, are those who tend to interpret problems as transient, controllable, and specific to one situation. Pessimistic people, on the other hand, assume that problems they encounter will last forever, undermine everything they do and are uncontrollable. 6 Research reviewed by Martin Seligman suggested that pessimism predicts poorer mental health. Optimists are less likely to become depressed and to commit or attempt suicide.7 Teaching optimistic thinking was shown to cut the likelihood of a young person developing depression by 50%.

17 There is also evidence that optimists have better physical health, including longer life expectancy. 8 For example, one study found that negative thinking is linked to a weakened immune system. 9 A 30-year study in America found that optimists had 19% greater longevity in terms of their expected lifespan compared to that of pessimists. 10

18 Research also suggests that pessimism is a barrier to individuals achieving their potential at work, at school and in sporting endeavours. The evidence suggests that pessimists achieve less and take longer to recover from low achievement or failure. 11 For example, studies found that pessimistic undergraduates get lower grades relative to their past academic record than optimistic students. Pessimistic swimmers have sub-standard times more often and get slower after a disappointing result, while optimistic swimmers get faster. Pessimistic life insurance agents sell less and drop out sooner than optimistic agents. 12

19 Significantly, and unlike with self-esteem where causality has not been proved, the evidence suggests that pessimism can be causal. While poor achievement, depression and ill-health can all cause pessimism, many of the longitudinal studies suggest that pessimism itself goes on to cause depression, poor achievement and ill-health. 13

20 However, studies suggest that a pessimistic view can be beneficial in certain circumstances. Optimism is taught by psychologists as a tool for tackling inaccurate (and damaging) beliefs. However a more pessimistic view is useful when the consequences of a decision could have catastrophic consequences. Examples include drawing up legal contracts, investing money or engineering projects. Proponents of teaching optimism therefore stress that it must be based on reality, and that optimism should be flexible. 14


21 Self-esteem has been defined in a range of ways, one common definition is "confidence in our abilities to think and to cope with the basic challenges of life; and confidence in our right to be happy, the feeling of being worthy, entitled to assert our needs and wants and entitled to enjoy the fruits of our efforts." 15 We can distinguish two types of self-esteem, "global self-esteem" which is affected by the quality of our social relationships, and "specific self-esteem" which relates to the way individuals evaluate their skills and attributes.

22 A review of available research evidence about the costs and causes of low self-esteem, by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 16 found no clear evidence to support the idea that self-esteem causes particular behaviour patterns. But we do have informative evidence from longitudinal studies, following the same individuals over time, which show associations between self-esteem and later behaviours or outcomes.

23 The research found that low self-esteem is a risk factor for suicide, suicide attempts and depression, for teenage pregnancy, and for being bullied (victimisation by others). In other words, having low self-esteem as a child means that you are more likely to experience one of the above. However, in each case, low self-esteem is one of several risk factors and probably interacts with others. There are indications that low childhood self-esteem is associated with adolescent eating disorders and with poor economic outcomes - earnings, continuity of employment for males in early adulthood - but the causal mechanisms involved are unclear.

24 Contrary to expectations the review found that low self-esteem is not a risk factor for delinquency, violence towards others (including child and partner abuse), drug use, alcohol abuse, early sexual experimentation, educational under-attainment or racism. However, low self-esteem is likely to be an outcome of these behaviours.

25 The Joseph Rowntree Foundation researchers found a link between inflated self-esteem, or narcissism, and aggression. 17 However, other researchers argue that violence may be an expression of an underlying low self-esteem, where aggressive-impulsive people may try hard to cover their deep self-doubts by excessive bravado and a willingness to take risks, such as through violence. 18

26 Another recent review of research evidence 19 also showed that high self-esteem is linked with enhanced initiative, and facilitates persistence after failure. It is therefore suggested that high self-esteem is particularly useful for entrepreneurship, where initiative and innovation are important and risk of failure may be high.


27 There is only very limited evidence about levels of confidence among people in Scotland. This paper looks at confidence at a number of levels - individual, relationship, community and societal.

Confident individuals?

28 A survey undertaken in Scotland by Edinburgh University in 1998, as part of Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC): World Health Organization Cross National Survey, found that 11, 13 and 15-year-olds in Scotland ranked low in confidence compared to other countries at 23rd out of 29 countries. However, trend data for Scotland suggest confidence increased between 1994 and 2002. 20

Figure 1: School-aged children feeling confident

Figure 1: School-aged children feeling confident

Source: 1997/1998 Health Behaviour in School-aged Children: WHO Collaborative Cross-national Survey

29 There is a significant gender difference: in Scotland 27% of 11, 13 and 15-year-old boys, but only 15% of girls at the same ages, reported in 2002 they felt confident "always". 21 The 2002 Scottish HBSC survey found that boys' confidence levels are higher than girls at all three ages, but both boys' and girls' confidence declines between the ages of 11 and 13. 22

30 Confidence is seen as a key component of good mental health. A public attitudes' survey 23 of a representative sample of over 1,000 adults in Scotland asked people about what described good mental health for them (they were allowed to choose their top 5 from a list of 14). Fifty-two per cent mentioned being confident, and this rose to 69% among 16 to 24-year-olds.

31 However, some evidence suggests little difference between confidence in Scotland and other parts of the UK. A recent Prince's Trust study involving 900 young people from both disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged groups in Scotland, England and Wales found that young people, irrespective of their background, considered a lack of confidence to be one of their biggest obstacles. 24 The British Household Panel Survey in 2002 asked whether respondents felt that they had lost confidence in themselves recently, and no differences were noted between the answers from people living in Scotland and those not resident in Scotland. However, as the question relates to recent changes in confidence, it does not pick up individuals with chronic low confidence.

Confident relationships?

32 Relationships are an important sphere in which confidence can be both demonstrated and built. Relationships between intimate partners and within families are particularly crucial. A 2003 YouthLink Scotland study of 972 young people in Scotland aged 17-25 found that 82% said they trust and respect their parents. 25 Parents were more likely than any other person to be identified by young people as someone they trusted and respected.

33 However, for some young people in Scotland, relationships with parents are damaging. Research has found that 1 in 9 children run away or are forced to leave home before the age of 16 due to difficulties in their lives. 26 Arguments and conflict with parents or step-parents was a major factor for 39% of young people who ran away, while emotional abuse and feelings of neglect and rejection were major reasons for 19% of young people. 27

34 Confidence in relationships is valued by employers, but employees in Scotland appear to lack this. A survey of Scottish employers in 2002 found that 50% reported that employees lacked relationship and interpersonal skills like customer handling, team-working, planning and organisation and oral communication - some of which relate to confidence. 28

Confident communities?

35 As part of a consideration of confidence in communities and Scotland, this review has considered some of the indicators of social capital and trust. A 2002 analysis by the Office of National Statistics found that people in Scotland were more likely than people in England to trust many or most of the people in their neighbourhood (67% in Scotland, compared to 62% in Wales and 56% in England). 29

36 While confidence and trust in close relationships and within neighbourhoods might be relatively strong, this may mask problems in deprived communities. Research has suggested that narrow social networks (in which unemployment is rife) may compound community problems by reinforcing a culture of pessimism. 30 However, recent analysis of the British Household Panel Survey found that people from areas which were "relatively homogenous, with a low turnover of population", tended to be more positive about their area. 31

37 One small-scale focus group exercise found that, overall, participants were optimistic about the future for the area they live in. 32 However, in all but one age group participants were more strongly optimistic about their own future and the future of Scotland, than about their area. The relatively low optimism for the area in which people live was true for participants from affluent communities, as well as from deprived communities.

Confident Scotland?

38 This review has also looked at evidence about people's confidence in Scotland. The evidence shows a strong identification with, and pride in, Scotland. The 2003 Scottish Social Attitudes' Survey found 97% of respondents were either somewhat or very proud of being Scottish. 33

39 YouthLink Scotland's Being Young in Scotland in 2003 study found young people more likely to identify with positive rather than negative statements about Scotland. The table below shows young people's responses.

Figure 2: Statements about Scotland - young people

Base: All respondents (972), 2 May - 11 July 2003
Source: YouthLink Scotland (2003) Being Young in Scotland in 2003

40 The Possible Scotland project carried out by the Scottish Council Foundation also found a general optimism for the future. Despite this, when participants were asked about their views on Scotland today only a minority recognised Scotland as "a confident place", as illustrated below. Many agreed with other positive statements about Scotland; for example, "a good place to bring up children" was the most popular description of Scotland.

Figure 3: Statements about Scotland - adults

Figure 3: Statements about Scotland - adults

Source: Possible Scotland, Scottish Council Foundation, April 2002

41 Despite some of the optimism reported above, this research found a "poverty of expectation" in Scotland. They reported that "a palpable sense of resignation was evident in some of the interviews conducted - the "cannae" as much as the "canny" Scot". 35

42 Project Galore research into Scottish people's views about Scotland revealed that many felt that modesty is valued in Scotland. 36 Researchers have suggested that a cultural tendency towards modesty has an impact on self-esteem - such cultures may be less likely to produce individuals who present themselves as highly worthy people. 37 The Joseph Rowntree Foundation study suggests this may be why the self-esteem scores of Indian adolescents are lower than Caribbean adolescents. 38

43 However, this is double-edged. Extensive work to classify individual strengths valued across cultures identified humility and modesty as one of the 24 universal strengths. 39 While modesty is a strength which guards against unwarranted self-congratulation, pretentiousness and arrogance, it is also correlated with reduced happiness. The exercise of all the other 24 strengths, such as kindness, creativity, humour and integrity, were correlated with increased happiness. This suggests rates of depression and unhappiness are likely to be higher in a culture which encourages modesty.

44 While the direct evidence for a lack of confidence is patchy, there is anecdotal evidence that these types of cultural artefacts such as sayings, humour and literature in Scotland help to underpin modesty and to punish non-conformity. Well-known Scottish sayings are often negative "putdowns" such as: "What is he like?"; "Aye that'll be right"; "Can we no dae anything right?". Scottish comedy is often self-deprecating and pokes fun at individuals perceived to be immodest or who "get above their station".


45 Scotland has strengths which suggest high confidence, including national pride and social capital in communities. However, this review also assesses the challenges facing Scotland which are linked with low self-esteem and pessimism. Scotland fares badly in comparison with other countries in relation to some of those challenges. Some of the major challenges facing the country can be linked to pessimism - these include suicide, depression, low life-expectancy and business birth rates. For other areas which are linked to self-esteem, including adolescent eating disorders, economic outcomes for young men, the data is not available to decide whether the position in Scotland is worse than elsewhere.


46 The links between poor mental health and low self-esteem and pessimism are well established. It is also well established that mental health problems are generally increasing in Scotland and some of our mental health problems have a higher prevalence than in other European countries.

47 The suicide rate in Scotland (based on deaths from intentional self-harm and events of undetermined intent) is significantly higher than in England and Wales (15.7 per 100,000 population compared with 8.8 per 100,000 in the year 2003) rising by 17% between 1984 and 2003. 40 The increase in male suicides in this period was 25%, with the rate for males aged between 15 and 34 rising by 56%. The general trend over the past 20 years has been of rising rates in Scotland, although 2003 witnessed a drop. It is too early to establish whether this signals a reversal in trend. Rates are constant or falling in most other European countries.

Depressive illness

48 Rates of depressive illness are also rising, and this creates costs for society and the economy. Depression and anxiety together are the most common reasons for seeing a GP in Scotland in 2003/4. 41 The 2004 National Scottish Survey of Public Attitudes to Mental Health found that 20% of women and 13% of men reported that they had been diagnosed by a health professional as experiencing depression. 42 The picture for the mental well-being of young people is particularly striking. In a 2002 review of the evidence concerning the health of young people (aged 12-25 in Scotland), West and Sweeting found that a significant minority (up to 1 in 3 males, 2 in 5 females) among respondents had experienced psychological distress and 1 in 10 had a psychiatric disorder. 43 It is known that between 1992 and March 2004 the number of dispensed prescriptions for antidepressants almost tripled from 1.2 million to 3.4 million per year. 44

49 This is not just a Scottish problem. The World Health Organization predicts that depression is likely to increase worldwide over the next two decades. 45 In part this may reflect greater awareness and diagnosis of depression among medical professionals. However, there appear to be significant variations, for example antidepressant prescribing is 40% higher in Scotland than in England. 46 This suggests other factors are relevant, including culture, prevalence, or prescribing preference of GPs.

Life expectancy

50 The research suggests that optimists live longer than pessimists. We know that life expectancy and health in Scotland is poor. Before enlargement of the European Union in May 2004, Scottish women had the lowest life expectancy in Europe and Scottish men the second lowest after Portugal. 47 While deaths in Scotland from cardiovascular disease, cancer and strokes are all falling, Scotland still has one of the poorest records and the gap in life expectancy between those who are the most affluent and those who are the most deprived continues to grow.

Rates of entrepreneurship

51 Entrepreneurial activity is relatively low in Scotland. The rate of new business formation is lower in Scotland than in most other regions in the UK, except Wales, Northern Ireland and North East England. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (an international survey of entrepreneurship) found that Scotland's "total entrepreneurial activity" is slightly lower than the UK average (5.5% compared with 6.4%) and is placed in the lower half in a group of 31 nations surveyed. 48 The same research also found that people in Scotland are much less likely than those elsewhere to invest in a business. The informal investment rate in Scotland in 2003 was about 1.4%. This is low by international standards - the average rate was 3.4% in a survey of 31 nations.

52 However, the relatively low rates of entrepreneurial activity in Scotland do not seem to translate into differences in attitudes to risk, the possession of start-up skills, ability to identify opportunities, or attitudes to entrepreneurship generally. 49 A recent survey suggests that there are no marked differences in the proportions of people thinking about going into business between England and Scotland. 50 However, the same research did find that more Scots were concerned about getting into debt and business failure.

Adolescent eating disorders

53 The Joseph Rowntree Foundation review suggested that low self-esteem was linked to adolescent eating disorders. 51 The Eating Disorders' Association estimates that as many as 90,000 people in the UK may be receiving treatment for eating disorders at any one time. 52 Other estimates from the Mental Health Foundation suggest that in the UK up to 1% of women between the ages of 15 and 30 experience anorexia nervosa and between 1 and 2% experience bulimia nervosa. 53 Published estimates from 2001 suggest that in Scotland some 1,200 women aged 15-24 years may have had symptoms suggestive of anorexia nervosa with upwards of 4,700 with bulimic symptoms.

Bullying, victimisation and violence

54 As Figure 4 illustrates, levels of violence have fallen in other UK administrations, but are rising in Scotland, although still below that of England and Wales.

Figure 4: Violence in Scotland compared with England and Wales

Figure 4: Violence in Scotland compared with England and Wales

Source: Scottish Crime Survey 1993, 1996, 2000 and British Crime Survey 1994, 1996, 1998 and 2000

55 However, along with England and Wales, Scotland has a relatively high level of violent crime when compared internationally.

56 Psychological studies suggest that people with low self-esteem are more likely to be bullied or victimised. 54 Despite a recent study which found that levels of bullying in Scotland do not appear to be as high as in some other countries, 55 levels of bullying remain a cause for concern.

Economic outcomes for young men

57 The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report suggested a link between low self-esteem in adolescence and poor economic outcomes for young men in early adult life. However, we do not have Scottish-level data on economic outcomes for young men in early adult life which would enable us to see the extent of the issue in Scotland.

Deprived communities

58 As discussed earlier, a number of indicators suggest that Scotland as a whole has relatively good community relationships but that narrow social networks in deprived communities may reinforce a culture of pessimism, 56 as does a persistent cycle of poverty, poor housing and unemployment. These findings are particularly salient as there is considerable evidence that poverty and deprivation tend to be concentrated in particular urban and rural areas in Scotland, more so than in the rest of the UK. 57

Dependency on the state

59 The 'Possible Scotland' project found that "some stakeholders felt that an important part of what holds Scotland back is an abdication of personal responsibility in favour of the state". 58 According to some survey evidence, people in Scotland are more likely to believe that the state should provide, compared with individuals elsewhere in the UK. Results from the 2001 British Household Panel Survey show that people living in Scotland are more likely to agree with the statement that "It is the government's responsibility to provide a job for everyone who wants one". "Possible Scotland" focus participants expressed clear expectations that government should take lead responsibility for addressing many social and economic problems, and some participants thought that government had abdicated responsibility in favour of the individual in recent years, introducing a culture of blame.

60 Certainly, Scotland has a high public expenditure economy. The proportion of GDP associated with the public sector in Scotland is amongst the highest in Europe. Twenty-seven per cent of people employed in Scotland work in the public sector.

61 Social welfare spending in Scotland is 9% above the UK average. 59 However, this is less than the per capita averages in Wales and Northern Ireland, which were 20% and 16% respectively in 2002-03. The evidence for a dependency culture in Scotland is therefore inconclusive.


62 Confidence varies over the life cycle and between individuals. The evidence reviewed does not suggest that there is a single factor which drives pessimism, low self-esteem or a lack of confidence in Scotland. Instead there is a range of factors which may be static or dynamic. The inter-relations between factors are complex and subject to variation.

63 One way to begin to order the range of factors which contribute to confidence is to use an ecological model which is a well-established means of ordering complex fields of study. These models were first developed in the 1970s for the study of child abuse and refined in more recent studies of delinquency and domestic abuse. 60 These studies offer a framework for understanding the factors which contribute to confidence in Scotland.

64 The model below has been adapted from the World Health Organization's World Report on Violence and Health. 61

model adapted from the World Health Organization's World Report on Violence and Health.

Source: World Health Organization

65 The model enables the division of the factors contributing to confidence into four levels which are outlined below. The evidence reviewed below is not specifically Scottish.

Individual factors


66 Researchers suggest that between one third and one half of almost all personality traits - including self-esteem and optimism - are attributed to genetic influence. 62 In order to distinguish between the effect of genes and that of parenting or childhood experience, psychologists have studied and compared identical twins brought up apart. These show that the psychology of identical twins is much more similar than fraternal twins. Studies also show that the psychology of adopted children is much more similar to that of their biological parents than their adoptive parents.


67 However, this does not mean that these traits are fixed. Some highly heritable traits such as pessimism can change throughout life. Self-esteem has also been shown to vary over the life cycle. It is not clear whether this variation is due to age or to life events. For example, the move from primary to secondary school appears to produce a downward change in self-esteem. 63 However, self-esteem increases over the course of adolescence. There also appears to be an upward movement in self-esteem at the end of secondary education. It has also been suggested that confidence and self-esteem may decline in older people, perhaps due to lack of skill use.

Personal Circumstances

68 Changes in circumstance can also impact on self-esteem - for example, becoming unemployed may produce lower self-esteem. 64 Becoming homeless is also associated with a lowering of self-esteem. However in both cases, research points to the loss of social contact as a likely causal agent for loss of self-esteem.


69 Research suggests that men have consistently higher self-esteem than women. 65 Cultural norms about gender roles may have an impact - with boys being encouraged to present themselves more positively than girls. Discrimination, lower levels of income, opportunities, power and influence may also have an impact. The World Health Organization research 66 showed that girls had consistently lower confidence than boys, across all countries surveyed.


Parents and Carers

70 Evidence suggests that relationships with parents have the most significant impact on self-esteem 67 and optimism. 68 A 1996 review of the evidence 69 found that approval and acceptance from parents is particularly important for developing self-esteem. An aversion to giving praise, for fear of encouraging boasting, does not help parents to promote confidence in their children.

71 The research reveals that parents are also key in shaping children's explanatory style - helping them to see the world optimistically or pessimistically. Children can be taught to see their failures as temporary and specific to one endeavour (optimistic) and hence learn to keep trying and improving. Alternatively, critical parenting styles can encourage children to see failure as permanent and applicable across many endeavours. This pessimistic style can lead to children feeling helpless and fatalistic. 70

72 Not surprisingly, parental abuse has been shown to have a devastating effect on self-esteem. Many studies show that experiencing physical abuse in childhood at the hands of one's parents or guardians causes significant and lasting damage to self-esteem. The effects of sexual abuse are even more damaging. One review of child sexual abuse 71 concluded that low self-esteem is one of the more conspicuous long-term effects of sexual abuse of children.

Peers, friends, intimate partners and social networks

73 Evidence about the causal influence of the quality of relationships on confidence is mixed. Some studies have suggested that good relationships cause high self-esteem. 72 One of the qualities that appears to be crucial is unconditional acceptance by a close friend. 73 However, another study of 620 adolescents found no link between the quality of adolescent relationships and later self-esteem. 74 While evidence suggests that peer relationships become increasingly important for self-esteem throughout adolescence, work on life-cycle development suggests that self-esteem can be raised by the making of a significant friendship at any time in the life cycle. 75

74 Quantity of relationships also appears to be significant. A link has been shown between low self-esteem and poor social support. 76 Circumstances which can be socially isolating, such as becoming unemployed or homeless, are therefore likely to reduce self-esteem.

75 Self-esteem has been found to correlate with marital satisfaction and harmony. 77 There has been less research done looking at cohabiting partners. One international study found that in individualistic cultures, unmarried partners reported more life satisfaction than married or single people. In collectivist societies cohabiting people reported lower life satisfaction than the married or single. 78

76 Unlike the relationship with parents, the causal link with other relationships may run in the other direction. Ability to form relationships with peers and intimate partners may be due to high self-esteem, and, indirectly, parental relationships. Self-esteem seems to predict quality of relationships, and not the other way round. For example, one study found that self-esteem predicted the quality of peer relationships six years later. 79


Education and learning

77 Formal education and learning play an important role. Research suggests that much of the subconscious hardwiring of confidence is already in place by the time a child goes to school 80 and that genes and parenting make the most significant contributions. However, learning from other sources can significantly alter the levels of individual self-esteem and optimism. There is evidence that confidence and optimism can be taught in school and in a range of settings beyond the formal school environment.


78 This review has found some evidence which suggests a link between volunteering and building confidence. For example, an evaluation carried out by Raleigh International of their Youth Development Programme found that 98% reported increased confidence and motivation among other positive outcomes. 81 The Youth Development Programme is designed to develop the skills and prospects of disadvantaged and socially excluded people in the UK, and organisations such as Prince's Trust and the Ministry of Defence offer similar schemes. The common features to these activities seem to be:

  • giving participants responsibility;
  • requiring effort, preferably in doing something which the participants recognise as valuable;
  • a sense of achievement on completion of a task or activity; and
  • being a member of a team.

79 In some cases, volunteering was seen to build confidence when it enabled participants to discover and develop a talent of which they had previously been unaware.


80 A recent Scottish study identified "a committed mentor or other person outside the family" as one of the elements which resilient children and young people are likely to possess. 82 Hall (2002) noted that mentoring occurs when "the more experienced shall care for and train the less experienced in a non-judgemental manner". 83 Hall also noted that Scottish or UK evidence for the benefits of mentoring is limited and many studies are difficult to generalise due to the absence of control groups and evaluation methods used. However, there is a fairly good evidence base in America, particularly in terms of positive outcomes for mentoring schemes to help "at risk" young people. 84

Creativity, arts, sport and culture

81 In education there is a body of evidence which suggests that teaching art in school has a number of "spill over" benefits including improved self-esteem and higher achievement in non-art subjects. 85 More broadly, creativity across the curriculum is seen as important. A 2001 Learning and Teaching Scotland document stated that being creative "is inextricably tied up with the process of becoming knowledgeable, of developing self-esteem and becoming whole". 86

82 As well as bringing benefits to the individual, creativity is also argued to have considerable economic benefits. Richard Florida has argued that the extent to which a region or city provides access to arts and cultural opportunities is one of the factors which grow confidence and predict economic success. 87 This may be particularly relevant in Scotland, given relatively low levels of research and development in business.

83 A Scottish Executive Social Research review of the evidence found that participation in cultural and sporting activities has been shown to increase self-confidence, self-esteem and a feeling of self-worth. 88 This research also found that participation in cultural and sporting activities led to improved physical and mental health, such as reduced stress levels and reduction in anxiety. However, the review of evidence found there was little longitudinal evidence about medium and long-term impacts of participation.

84 Visible art, architectural innovation, and successful arts, sporting and cultural events were suggested by contributors to help promote civic pride and confidence. The evidence suggests that such events and activities have a positive economic impact, but there is little direct evidence about non-economic impacts. 89

Social class and ethnicity

85 Research suggests that social class and ethnicity have a moderate influence on self-esteem. Past evidence (from the 1970s) suggested that being from a lower social class is linked to lower adult self-esteem. 90 A more recent US study found that self-esteem in 12 to 19-year-olds did find a link with low levels of parental education and with unemployment. The study found that self-esteem was not linked directly to father's occupation, the traditional indicator of social class position, but it was linked with the level of father's education; whether or not the father was unemployed; and perceived levels of unemployment in the neighbourhood. 91

86 Membership of a particular ethnic group was also found to be statistically significant, although the evidence comes from the USA. For example, there is research which suggests that despite racial prejudice and poorer economic and academic outcomes, black Americans have higher self-esteem on average than white Americans. 92


A modest culture

87 Individuals are also affected by prevailing culture at a larger regional and national level and within social groups. Some researchers talk about racial or national pride as "collective self-esteem". 93 Researchers have suggested that differing cultures could explain differences in self-esteem scores. 94 If a culture values modesty then the members of that culture will be less likely to report that they are highly worthy people. "Project Galore" research conducted by Corporate Edge and others suggests that people in Scotland see themselves as modest.

Portrayals of success and failure

88 The self-esteem literature suggests that real successes and failures do matter in terms of raising or lowering confidence, but not so much as perceptions of these. 95 The portrayals of national, regional or community failures as permanent and uncontrollable, combined with portrayals of success as transient and "a fluke" are likely to reinforce pessimism.

89 Success is increasingly celebrated in Scotland through the medium of awards aimed at a wide variety of endeavours and levels of achievement. Examples include the Adult Learner Awards, CoSLA Quality Awards and Spirit of Scotland Awards. However, the portrayal of successful individuals in the public arena can be negative.

The activities of public agencies

90 The attitudes and behaviours of public agencies are also important in terms of promoting confidence. Currently, there are a significant number of public agencies in Scotland working to promote Scotland abroad, and VisitScotland campaigns to promote Scotland as a tourist destination to both the domestic and international markets.


91 A fifth level might be suggested which includes environmental factors. Some people have suggested that the relatively cold climate might play a role in levels of confidence in Scotland. Climate has been suggested as part of the reason for high suicide rates in Scandinavian countries. Seasonal affective disorder ("SAD" syndrome) has been recognised as a phenomenon causing poor mental well-being in some individuals during winter months when there is little sunlight. However, the four countries whose young people ranked highest in terms of confidence in the WHO study 96 reflect a variety of climates (Greece (1st), Portugal (2nd), Greenland (3rd) and Poland (4th)). This review has not focused on the possible effects of climate; but the research evidence appears to be inconclusive.


92 This paper has attempted to assemble evidence from a wide variety of sources to build a picture of levels of confidence in Scotland, the impacts of low confidence, and how confidence develops and can be shaped.

93 Confidence is being recognised as an issue across Scotland, and in other countries. However it is not an issue which government can tackle alone. Large-scale changes in attitudes can only be brought about if a wide range of individuals and organisations from across Scottish life are involved. A broad debate is needed, and it is hoped that this paper will play a role in helping to stimulate that debate.