A new study of incoming freshmen has begun to question whether confidence really does go hand-in-hand with positive results among college students.

It’s no secret that Generation Y has quite a bit of confidence. Whether it be participation trophies in Little League or the Honor Roll, Millennials have both received and sought out appraisal in sizable quantities as part of what has been called the “Self-Esteem Movement.” But now, a team of researchers lead by Jean Twenge have begun to study how college students levels of self-esteem really measure up against their abilities, and whether or not confidence really does breed success which she recently discussed in an interview with BBC’s Health Check.

Twenge and her team analyzed responses made by students as part of the American Freshman Survey, which over nine million American freshman have filled out since 1966. Since the introduction of the Self-Esteem Movement in the late 60s, popularized by The Psychology of Self-Esteem by psychologist Nathaniel Brande, there has been a steady rise in the number of college freshman who label themselves as being “above average” and having a “drive to succeed” on the survey. In contrast, less individualistic traits such as empathy and cooperativeness either decreased or remained relatively unchanged.

“Our culture used to encourage modesty and humility and not bragging about yourself,” says Twenge. “It was considered a bad thing to be seen as conceited or full of yourself.”

But how does Gen Y’s self-perception stack up against reality? Twenge and her team compared the perception of student’s writing ability against test scores, and found that while most freshman would label themselves as “gifted” at writing, their actual ability has decreased since the 1960s. Not only that, but despite a claimed increase in drive to succeed, the number of students who claim to study for six hours or more a week has dropped from nearly half of all freshman in the 1980s to around a third by 2009.

According to Twenge, this over-confidence in one’s abilities is not only unrealistic, but also potentially dangerous given the amount of stress and hardship incurred when student’s lofty goals do not match up with reality.

“Since the 1960s and 1970s, when those expectations started to grow, there’s been an increase in anxiety and depression,” says Twenge. ”There’s going to be a lot more people who don’t reach their goals.”

These results have been supported by other studies as well. Roy Baumeister of Florida State University authored a 2003 paper that examined dozens of self-esteem studies and discovered that while high self-esteem and success often have a positive correlation, whether there was a causal connection was decidedly unclear. This lead Baumeister to question whether or not it was self-esteem that was breeding success, or instead success breeding self-esteem.

“Coming from a good family might lead to both high self-esteem and personal success,” says Baumeister. ”Self-control is much more powerful and well-supported as a cause of personal success. Despite my years invested in research on self-esteem, I reluctantly advise people to forget about it.”

However, Twenge also was quick to point out that this doesn’t necessarily mean that a lack of confidence is any better, but instead must replace over-confidence with a desire to improve.

“You need to believe that you can go out and do something but that’s not the same as thinking that you’re great,” says Twenge.

(Graph courtesy of BBC News)