Every four years, the Trends in Math and Science Study (TIMSS) conducts a global assessment of math and science skills among 8th grade students in 30 to 50 countries.  In doing so, it reveals a mysterious and striking paradox. 

To no one’s surprise, within each country, students who perform better in math and science have more confidence in their skills.  However, if we look at national averages rather than individual students’ scores, this relationship flips: Countries with better students have more students with low self-confidence.  For example, 64% of Singaporean and 85% of American students express confidence in their math abilities.  However, as a country, Singaporean students on average vastly outperform the more confident American students.  We see this pattern the world over: Countries that have the best students on average also have students who express the least overall self-confidence in their skill, while students in countries posting the worst average performance are those who express the overall highest self-confidence in the world.  

Why do the best performing countries in math and science produce the least confident students?  Cultural differences in how people think about time may have something to do with this paradoxical finding.  People face a basic conflict about where they should focus their efforts—the short-term or the long-term.  For example, people can choose to spend their money on a vacation right now or save it for the future.  This focus on time shapes what they prioritize, leading to different values, beliefs, goals, and habits.

Countries that are long-term oriented, such as China and Russia, place greater emphasis on the future and long-term needs. They value thrift, encourage persistence in overcoming obstacles, emphasize adaptability, and view people as malleable beings who can improve rather than as fixed people who cannot change their basic qualities and traits. These characteristics naturally orient people toward the long-term.

In contrast, people from short-term oriented cultures, such as Egypt and the United States, emphasize meeting needs in the present.  These cultures focus more on maintaining tradition, reputation, status, and reciprocity in current social obligations. They also tend to assume that a person’s present-day characteristics and abilities are relatively stable and that people are not likely to change.

How people think about time might drive the paradoxical relationship between performance and self-confidence because a focus on the future might make people perform better.  If people are focused on the future, they might also focus on how to improve themselves by persisting on academic tasks.  But this long-term orientation might lead to lower self-confidence because it prompts people to mull over their weaknesses. 

To do this research, we analyzed math and science scores of nearly one million students, which included information on students’ self-confidence.  We also noted how each country scored along several cultural dimensions, which allowed us to compare how these cultural dimensions related to students’ performance, confidence, and the paradoxical relationship between the two. 

We found those countries that were more long-term oriented had both higher levels of performance and lower levels of self-confidence than countries with a short-term orientation.  An emphasis on the long-term future was associated with students who performed the best while also denying it the most in their self-confidence.

All of this left one unanswered question.  What cultural dimension led students to correctly understand how well they performed in math and science? Within each country, students who performed better had higher levels of self-confidence.  However, there were differences across the countries in how accurate the students were about their abilities.  We found that that the cultural dimension of individualism (versus collectivism) predicted more accurate self-assessments. That is, countries that focus on the individual (such as the United States) had students with performance that more closely matched their self-confidence than countries whose cultures emphasize the concerns of the group.

Some psychologists might be surprised by these findings given that people from individualist cultures tend to have more inflated and unrealistic self-views than those from collectivist cultures.  But people can exaggerate their abilities yet still have self-views that accurately track their performance.  In individualist countries, people’s judgments of themselves are like an automobile speedometer that faithfully rises and falls with the speed of the car but always says the car is going 10 MPH faster than it really is.  That is, their self-confidence changes proportionally to their performance even though their confidence tends to be inflated. Meanwhile, in collectivist cultures, where norms say that people should not stand out, students’ self-confidence is less exaggerated, but their confidence also reflects their actual performance less accurately.

People’s views of themselves are not only a reflection of their objective performance, they also reflect how people are trained to think about their abilities by their teachers, parents, and culture.  Cultural influences can be so strong that they produce this paradoxical relationship between self-confidence and performance.

For Further Reading:

Sanchez, C. & Dunning, D. (2019). Cultural patterns in student assessments and performance explain the worldwide perception/performance paradox in math and science skill, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10, 935-945.

Hofstede, G. (2003). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


Carmen Sanchez is a Ph.D. candidate in Social and Personality Psychology at Cornell University. She studies how perceptions of abilities change as people learn, cultural differences in self-enhancement, and financial decision-making. 

David Dunning is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on the psychology of human misbelief, particularly false beliefs people hold about themselves.