Science of overconfidence

A new scientific study suggests that overconfidence may actually improve your success rate. It's been somewhat of a mystery to evolutionary biologists as to why so many people are overconfident or narcissistic when those traits tend to result in dangerously wrong expectations and bad decisions. Dominic Johnson of the University of Edinburgh and UC San Diego's James Fowler, co-author of the terrific book Connected, used a evolutionary game theory and a computer simulation to study human competition and strategy. From National Geographic:
The results, published today in the journal Nature, showed that overconfidence pays off only when there is uncertainty about opponents' real strengths, and when the benefits of the prize at stake is sufficiently larger than the costs.

"So let's say you and I are fighting over some resource," Johnson said. "As long as there is some uncertainty about the outcome and the resource is valuable compared with the costs incurred in fighting for it, then overconfidence is the best strategy."

For instance, if people are fighting over an island with oil reserves, the benefit of accessing the oil might be a hundred billion dollars, while the costs of the war might be ten billion.

But if "if the cost of conflict or competition is high, and all for a fairly worthless prize—you're much better off being cautious."

Johnson compares the survival of overconfidence as a primary human trait to our outmoded cravings for high-calorie food—"a consequence of a preference that was useful to us in the past" when calories were scarce "but [that] goes wrong when there's a McDonald's on every corner."

"Evolution of Narcissism: Why We're Overconfident, and Why It Works"

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  1. It’s been somewhat of a mystery to evolutionary biologists as to why so many people are overconfident or narcissistic

    Forget biologists, it’s been a huge mystery to ME! I’m so glad I found this article to explain it. Every day I see people strutting around like they’re on top of the world and I’m like, uh, hello, that’s adorable, but it’s not like you’re me or anything.

  2. The authors concluded that their findings were unassailable and commenced building the display cases for their forthcoming Nobel Prizes.

  3. “…the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt” – Betrand Russell

  4. Still 110% relevant – overconfident people tend to cow underconfident people, leaving the other overconfident twits and the middle bunch to compete with.  Parse that group into those who perceive risk in the posturing (if I screw this up and Bill gets the deal I’m finished) and those who strut around equally arrogantly, who may well choose another arena with a less flourishing ponce to compete in.

    I can’t tell you how absolutely certain I am of the value of my accurate and valid convictions.

  5. I long ago decided that over-confidence was an asset in academics, where rejection (of manuscripts) and failure (of experiments, equipment, favorite students, the best laid plans) are an everyday part of the job. If you are going to be beaten down, it helps to start large. I decided then that this why so many academics are self-centered narcissistic assholes: it’s adaptive.

  6. “Still 110% relevant – overconfident people tend to cow underconfident people, leaving the other overconfident twits and the middle bunch to compete with.  Parse that group into those who perceive risk in the posturing (if I screw this up and Bill gets the deal I’m finished) and those who strut around equally arrogantly, who may well choose another arena with a less flourishing ponce to compete in.”I’m not 100% sure myself what you just said there: but I like how you said it!

  7. I’m not entirely sure that the study has it right, as being overconfident in your skill level can harm or kill you in many instances.  Whether it’s being an overconfident driver, pilot, swimmer, climber, motorcyclist, skier, share trader, gambler, or whatever your risk-taking passion is; overconfidence is more likely to put you into situations that may be too difficult for you to get out of in time.

    What I do think is that people that keep pushing their limits *gradually* are always better off in the end.

  8. I think there is merit this study. As a competitive professional level musician when I was younger I used to use a technique similar to overconfidence prior to a competition. I competed on three continents and for many years in the world championships playing in two of the top 10 bands in the world. Nothing beats hard work but when it comes to the crunch hard work doesn’t cut it as anxiety takes over – which is where the over confidence came in. Immediately after competition I’d pull my head out of my ass and return to normal – almost like selective narcissism.

  9. Its a similar thing to the way people drive. When you’re young, you drive like an idiot. If you survive to an older age you slow down, but while you’re young is when you get the chicks. And thus reproduce. So being a fool, overconfident, all those things is a fine way to continue your genes into the future, actually, even if you die by 20, cos for most young idiots blind luck will keep you going til you manage to get some easily impressed girl to mate with you.

    1. Living as I do in a retirement area, I find the idea that young people are worse drivers to be somewhat hilarious.

  10. The really obvious problem with this analysis is what’s known as the Winner’s Curse. Somehow you need to be overconfident with respect to your fighting ability while being spot-on with respect to the value of the resource in question.

    I’m going to propose a counter-theory that says overconfidence is so prevalent today specifically because selection pressure is so much lower than it used to be.

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