Confidence vs. Cockiness — The Fine Line To Walk

We are attracted to people who are sure of themselves.

However, there are different manifestations of this. Some people act quietly and self-assured while others take it up a notch and aggressively display dominance.

It’s the difference between confidence vs. cockiness.

Learn how exactly the two differ, why it matters, and what you can do to be seen as assertive.

Confidence vs. Cockiness — What’s the Difference?

Many people cannot tell the difference between a confident and a cocky person. To them, either one seems self-assured.

But under the hood, completely different things are going on.


The confident person comes from a place of strength. Their behavior is an expression of past challenges overcome.

The cocky person comes from a place of weakness. They are overcompensating for unaddressed weaknesses from their past.

To test for this, strike up a conversation with either one of them.

Given there is enough trust, the confident person will tell you about themselves. How they grew up, what they struggled with, where they went wrong, etc.

In contrast, the conversation with the cocky person won’t go anywhere. They will either avoid talking about their past (due to unresolved pain) or they will give you an extremely superficial account (due to lack of self-awareness).


The confident person’s directionality is inwards. They are checking in with themselves — their values, their competence — to decide what to do next.

The cocky person’s directionality is outwards. They are focused on the effect they have on others — the awe or the submissiveness they cause — to decide what to do next.

A dead giveaway is their eyes. Watch a confident person in a public setting, and they are either focused on themselves or the person in front of them. Their eyes are locked.

The cocky person’s eyes are always wandering. They are always checking how the room is responding to them. Are there women checking them out? Are there men who are afraid of them?


The confident person is motivated by competence. They enjoy experiencing themselves as capable of dealing with problems.

The cocky person is motivated by external validation. They enjoy being the center of attention.

You see this a lot at post-game or post-fight interviews. The confident athlete displays contentment. The challenge has been successfully concluded. They are at peace with themselves.

For the cocky person, the real game begins now. They will try to milk their success for as much validation as they can get, starting with the interviewer in front of them.


The competence of the confident person is a result of long-term thinking. It has been accumulated over many years.

The validation-seeking behavior of the cocky person is a spur-of-the-moment thing. They are trying to get a kick out of the situation now.

There is a reason why you meet so many cocky people in sales, in show biz, and in the influencer sphere, and. These people are all in it for the quick win.

In comparison, diplomats, military decision-makers, and investors all tend to be long-term thinkers. Not surprisingly, they also tend to act confident.

At a Glance

Here are the most important differences at a glance.

The Confident PersonThe Cocky Person
Comes from a place of strengthComes from a place of weakness
Has already proven themselvesNeeds to prove something
Is indifferent towards othersIs aggressive towards others
Looks inwardsLooks outwards
Thinks Long TermThinks short term
Seeks self-validationSeeks external validation

Real-World Examples

A real-world example of confidence vs. cockiness would be the difference between Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Obama acts self-assured because he is an outstanding communicator and competent leader. He knows from past experiences he is good at these things.

Trump acts aggressively and over the top, because, like his supporters, he suffers from an inferiority complex. Deep down, he knows he is really not up to the job.

Of course, this has nothing to do with political affiliation. Former Democratic president Bill Clinton often displayed cocky behavior in public (and still does), especially with women around. In comparison, the late Republican Senator John McCain often displayed confident behavior.

Another classic example is the difference between fighters Conor McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov. Conor is a trash talker, a braggart, and admittedly an excellent showman. Khabib is none of these things; he doesn’t have to be. He simply knows he will get you in the cage.

Movie stars are another example. Bruce Willis and Keanu Reeves in most of their roles act confidently. They save the day because someone has to. They are not trying to get a reaction out of other people.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in many of his roles — and off-screen too — acted cocky. He perfected the act of the swaggering brute with a sense of humor who takes delight in cutting others down a notch.

What’s interesting about Schwarzenegger, though, is that at least in his private life, he seems to have transitioned from cocky to confident.

In recent years, he has talked more openly about his upbringing. Schwarzenegger grew up in Austria with an abusive father who was a die-hard Nazi during the war. Schwarzenegger reflects on this experience in his Netflix documentary and has also referenced it in response to the Capitol attack and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

By coming to terms with his trauma, he now seems to have less of a desire to put other people down. It makes him more relatable now than he was in his youth at the height of his fame.

Two Different Types of Risk Assessment

Back in the day, I worked as a dating coach. Together with my then-girlfriend, we taught people how to talk to attractive strangers (among other things).

It was then that I first started thinking about the difference between confidence vs. cockiness.

Many of our first-time male clients had already read some dating guru’s book or taken a seminar.
As a result, they would all display typical signs of cocky body language:

  • Over-erect posture
  • Chest out
  • Arms wide
  • Broad stance
  • Chin up
  • Intense eye contact
  • Loud, challenging voice

They were acting like a bunch of mini Conor McGregors.

This was funny (and sometimes sad) to watch, as they were mostly nerdy, academic types. Through their exaggerated behavior, they were trying to make up for their obvious lack of physicality.

But did it work? Did women fall for that?

To an extent. It was dependent on the sexual awareness of the woman they were trying to impress.

If the woman was sexually inexperienced, she might mistake the cockiness on display for real confidence. This sometimes resulted in sexual attraction.

But if the woman was more experienced, she would not be fooled. On the contrary, the inauthenticity would massively turn her off. And she would often try to expose the loud mouth as if to warn other people off.

In essence, these guys were playing a high-risk-high-reward game.

If it worked, they would win big. A woman might have sex with them, that might otherwise not have noticed them.

But if the other person saw through their charade — they would lose big. They would be publicly humiliated.

I noticed the same logic during my time as an MMA coach. Some fighters would use their cockiness to intimidate their opponents pre-fight. This way, they would sometimes manage to score a win over a fighter that was technically better than them.

But eventually, they would all meet someone truly confident, and this person would then show them up big time. They wouldn’t just beat them but destroy them. It was hard for the former braggarts to come back from that. They had been found out.

You can even see these in war. Russia, before the Ukraine conflict, was thought of as the world’s second most powerful military in the world. That was largely due to their cockiness. The machoism, the overblown parades, the supposed wonder weapons — it was bluster on a large scale.

Then the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 happened, and within a short period of time, Russia was demasked. The poorest country in Europe was inflicting massive casualties on the Russian forces, even before Western weapons arrived.

In contrast, confidence is a risk-averse game. You consciously decide against the use of smoke grenades, even though that will allow other players to collect low-hanging fruits.

But while they are busy running after quick wins, you slowly but surely build up your arsenal of weapons.

And one day, you come back to collect big. Now you will have landslide wins that the cocky player could never dream of. In their arrogance, they never saw you coming.

How To Come Across Confident, Not Cocky

If you want to learn how to come across as confident, apply the following strategies.

1. Adopt a Warrior’s Approach

Confidence is a result of competence. If you know from past experience that you will hold up under pressure, it will shine through. People will instinctively judge you as confident.

Now, there are many different areas in which you could become competent. If you want to be a confident programmer, you need to learn your programming languages. If you want to be a confident chess player, you had better study your chess books.

But realistically, most people, when they talk about becoming confident, want to be seen as physically and mentally tough. In essence, they want to be able to handle themselves in an extreme situation like a fight, a war, or a natural catastrophe.

It sounds strange when you put it that explicitly, as we don’t think along these lines anymore. In the West, few people will ever encounter one of these situations even once in their life.

But we are still biologically wired to value these qualities. Women will want to have sex with men who display them. Other men will follow such men.

My usual recommendation at this point is to learn a combat sport (Boxing, Muay Thai, Wrestling, BJJ). Getting used to physical violence — both receiving it and dishing it out — is the most practical way to toughen yourself up.

My other recommendation concerns mastering your emotions. Under stress, it is easy to get swept away by fear or anger. The moment that happens, you are no longer perceived as confident. Instead of controlling the situation, the situation is now controlling you.

The antidote is meditation. Done right, it teaches you how to step outside of yourself and observe yourself as if you were a stranger.

The effect is profound — almost instantly, these strong emotions that had you in their grip, dissipate. You will feel calm and centered again, ready to make difficult decisions.

Meditation is not just restricted to the practice of sitting down with your eyes closed. It will eventually permeate every waking moment and every area of your life.

This combination — martial arts plus meditation — is of course not my idea. It is a recipe for confidence that has proven itself for thousands of years, especially in various Asian cultures.

If you were a Japanese samurai during the Sengoku period you had to be confident, as fighting for your life was your job. These warriors resorted to combat training and meditation to prepare themselves for anything; so should you.

2. Study the Body Language of Confident People

The way we judge someone to be confident or cocky is by their body language. The way they stand and move, their facial expressions, their eyes, their tonality — those are the cues we go by.

Therefore, you must learn to imitate the body language of confident people.

I know this sounds like I am contradicting myself. I said earlier that confidence is a result of competence; you overcame certain challenges in the past and are now stronger for it.

And while I am all for transforming yourself on a deep level through, for example, learning martial arts and meditation, you should also study these outward displays of confidence. By adopting them, you will further help the process of transforming yourself along.

It’s similar to learning an instrument. You can either study your instrument on a fundamental, by learning the chords and progressions, the different scales, certain techniques for modulation, etc.

Or, without knowing anything of that, you could just learn to play a certain song. As long as you are playing that, you will look like you know what you are doing. But beyond that, you know nothing.

Yet, both of these approaches have their uses. The first one will lay the fundament, the second one will keep you motivated and help you understand how more advanced people go about it. You need both.

It’s the same when learning how to be confident. You need both the transformational work as well as the imitational work.

Having said that, how do you actually go about imitating the body language of confident people?

First, you should find role models to imitate. I think it’s best to go with certain actors in movies. These professionals have a deep understanding of what postures and little gestures they need to display in order to seem confident but not cocky.

Kevin Costner is a good starting point. So are Liam Neeson and Keanu Reeves. Denzel Washington is great. Viggo Mortensen is another interesting option.

Don’t just watch them. Do what an actual acting student would do — replay their scenes. Focus less on the words and more on the nonverbal acting — their stance, their walk, their gestures, their looks.

Second, record yourself. You need to establish a feedback loop. You need to see yourself, what your body language currently looks like. And you need to see how these behaviors that you are adopting are coming across and what you still need to tweak.

Third, consider acting lessons or coaching. A professional acting or confidence coach will give you invaluable feedback on coming across as more confident. They will notice things you were not aware of.

Bonus tip: Also study how to come across cocky. It becomes much easier to calibrate correctly if you can play both roles. Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaughey are great for that; so are John Travolta and Robert Downey Jr. I think James Gandolfini in The Sopranos is another good option.

3. Dig Deeper

If you have a tendency of acting cocky instead of confident, don’t carelessly dismiss it. Try to get to the bottom of that behavior.

First, learn what triggers you. Is it when attractive women are around? Is it when you want to impress other men nearby?

Second, watch your emotional response. People who act cocky usually get a kick out of it. They feel elated, even euphoric. It’s similar to someone being on cocaine.

All of this is to improve your self-awareness. If you can spot the signs, you’ll be able to catch yourself before you go into full loud-mouth mode.

Third, identify the root cause. Cockiness is the act of overcompensating for trauma from your past. If you know what that trauma is and start to address it, your cockiness will eventually make room for true confidence.

Identifying that trauma is not an easy task. It might be you imitating behaviors you observed as a child by your dad. It could be getting bullied all your life for being short. It might be you feeling self-conscious about an intellectual deficit.

It is usually best to get the help of a therapist or a coach for that, as we are all blind to ourselves, to an extent. An outsider will much more easily identify underlying patterns.

Fourth, it might also help to think about the long-term consequences of your behavior. Cockiness ages badly. A young, cocky Donald Trump was somewhat attractive, in a reckless kind of way. Donald Trump the old man appears foolish even borderline insane. He only gets respect from even bigger fools (granted, there are plenty of those around).

This is how you will end up if you make cockiness your go-to behavior — a joke.

In comparison, confidence ages well. Look at Obama, look at Robert De Niro, look at Sting. If anything, their appearance of confidence has increased with the added gravitas of age. Investing in your confidence vs. your cockiness pays off.

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