Confidence vs. Cockiness — The Fine Line To Walk

We are attracted to self-assured people.

However, there are nuances. Some people act calm and confident while others are more outwardly dominant.

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?

There are four aspects that differentiate the confident from the cocky person:

  1. Origin
  2. Directionality
  3. Motivation
  4. Perspective

1. Origin

The confident person comes from a place of strength. Their self-assuredness is a result of past challenges overcome.

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

2. Directionality

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.

3. Motivation

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.

4. Perspective

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

The validation-seeking behavior of the cocky person is a short-term strategy. They are trying to get a kick out of the situation now.

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

Here are a few real-world examples of confidence vs. cockiness.

1. Barack Obama vs. 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 not up to the job.

To be clear, this has nothing to do with party affiliation.

Former Democratic President Bill Clinton often displayed cocky behavior in public, especially with women close by. In comparison, the late Republican Senator John McCain usually displayed quiet confidence.

2. Conor McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov

Another classic example is the difference between former UFC fighters Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Conor was a trash talker, a braggart, and admittedly an excellent showman. Khabib was none of these things; he didn’t have to be. He knew he would get you in the cage.

3. Movie Stars

Movie stars are another good example. Bruce Willis and Keanu Reeves in most of their roles act confidently, but not cocky. Their characters save the day not to get applause but because someone has to.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in many of his roles — and off-screen too — acted cocky. He perfected the act of the swaggering brute who enjoys putting other people down.

To be fair, Schwarzenegger, in recent years, seems to have transitioned from cocky to confident. I recommend the Netflix documentary about him, it’s really well done.

Cockiness Is a Gamble

Cockiness is a gamble. You are trying to make yourself look more dangerous than you are. It can work — but it can also spectacularly fail.

Here are three case studies.

1. Dating

Back in the day, I worked as a dating coach. It was then that I first started thinking about the difference between confidence vs. cockiness.

Many of my first-time male clients displayed signs of cocky body language — an over-erect posture with their chests sticking out, and their arms held wide. 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 lack of physicality.

Did it work? Did women fall for that?


If the woman was sexually inexperienced, she might mistake the cockiness on display for real confidence. This occasionally 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 let everybody know about it.

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 otherwise would not have noticed them. But if the other person saw through their charade — they would lose big. They would be publicly humiliated.

2. Professional Fighting

I noticed the same dynamic during my time as an MMA coach.

Some fighters would use their cockiness to unnerve their opponents pre-fight. Through sheer intimidation, they would sometimes score a win over a fighter who was much better than them.

But sooner or later, they would meet someone truly confident, and this person would then show them up big time. They wouldn’t just beat them but destroy them.

3. War

You can even see this dynamic play out in war.

Russia, before the Ukraine conflict, was considered the world’s second most powerful military. That was largely due to their cockiness. The overblown parades, the supposed wonder weapons, the machoism of their leaders — it was bluster on a large scale.

Then they tried to take over Ukraine in 2022, and within a short period, Russia was demasked. The poorest country in Europe was inflicting massive casualties on the Russian forces — even before Western weapons arrived. Russia didn’t even make it to the capital.

How To Come Across Confident, Not Cocky

If you want to come across as confident, use the following strategies.

1. Adopt a Warrior’s Approach

To be seen as confident, you need a certain level of physical and mental toughness. Essentially, you need to be able to handle yourself in a fight.

The obvious thing to do is to learn a combat sport (Boxing, Muay Thai, Wrestling, BJJ). By regularly exposing yourself to physical violence, you will become desensitized to it.

In addition, you must learn to control your emotions.

In a dangerous situation, it is easy to get swept away by fear or anger. 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, you will feel calm and centered again, ready to make difficult decisions.

This combination — martial arts plus meditation — is of course not a new idea.

It is a recipe for confidence that has proven effective for hundreds of years, especially in Japanese samurai culture. These warriors resorted to combat training and meditation to prepare themselves for life-and-death situations; so should you.

2. Study the Body Language of Confident People

The way we judge someone to be confident is by their body language — the way they move, their facial expressions, their tonality. Therefore, you should learn to imitate the body language of confident people.

I know this sounds like I am contradicting myself, as I said earlier that confidence is a result of competence. But you need both — the deep, transformational work as well as the imitational work. Combine them, and you will see results much quicker.

So, how do you go about learning the body language of confident people?

First, you should find role models to imitate. Movie actors make a great study. These professionals have a fantastic understanding of what postures and gestures they need to use to come across as confident.

Kevin Costner is a good starting point. So are Liam Neeson and Keanu Reeves. Denzel Washington is great, but sometimes borders on cocky. If you want a more toned-down kind of confidence, check out Viggo Mortensen.

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

Second, record yourself during these sessions to establish a feedback loop. You need to develop an idea of what your body language currently looks like and what you still need to work on.

Third, consider hiring an instructor. A professional acting or confidence coach will give you invaluable feedback on how to appear more confident. They will notice things that you were not aware of.

Bonus tip: Also study how to come across cocky. It’s 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. James Gandolfini in “The Sopranos” is another good option.

3. Dig Deeper

If you have a tendency to act cocky, try to find out why.

First, learn what triggers you. For example, is it when attractive women are around? Or maybe you are trying to impress authority figures like your boss?

Second, watch your emotional response. People who act cocky usually get a kick out of it. They feel elated, even euphoric. It’s like a drug high. If you can spot these signs, you’ll be able to catch yourself before you go full Conor McGregor.

Third, identify the root cause. Cockiness is a form of overcompensating. What is it that you are so insecure about? Maybe you were bullied as a kid. Maybe you feel self-conscious about your intellectual capacities.

It can be helpful to enlist the help of a therapist or a coach for that. To an extent, we are all blind to ourselves. An outsider will much more easily identify these underlying traumas.

Fourth, 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.

In comparison, confidence ages well. Look at Obama, look at Robert De Niro, and look at Sting. If anything, their appeal has increased with age.

That’s a good reason to drop the cockiness.

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