Overconfidence Advantages

Fortune favors the bold1 – and sometimes even the unreasonably overconfident, a new study says.

The rarely photographed ritual by which penguins impress their potential mates.

Using a mathematical model of simulated competitors, researchers found that while overconfident strategies don’t always win, their wins tend to be bigger than those of more cautious opponents. The total rewards they reap often make up for their losses – and then some.

The researchers think this may have to do with differing responses to novel situations, and the risks vs. payoffs they carry. In short, they suggest that when encountering a new and potentially dangerous scenario, the best strategy may be to simply march in with the assumption that you’re going to win, until you’re proven wrong.

As the journal Nature reports, the University of Edinburgh’s Dominic D. P. Johnson and UCSD’s James H. Fowler tested this concept by constructing a mathematical model of simplified resource competition, in which pairs of individuals endowed with different competitive strategies battle it out over limited resources:

If neither individual claims [a] resource, then no fitness is gained. If only one individual makes a claim, then it acquires the resource and gains fitness and the other individual gains nothing. If both individuals claim the resource, then both individuals pay a cost due to the conflict between them, but the individual with the higher initial endowment will win the conflict and also obtain fitness for acquiring [the resource].

In other words, conflict creates cost, but that may be a risk worth taking, because the payoff for a win is so high.

Intriguingly, the researchers found that the usefulness of overconfidence depends on how many resources are around, compared with how high the cost of competition is:

Overconfidence maximizes individual fitness and populations tend to become overconfident, as long as benefits from contested resources are sufficiently large compared with the cost of competition. In contrast, unbiased strategies are only stable under limited conditions.

This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, the researchers say, because overconfident animals – if they live long enough to produce offspring – may be more likely to have lots of children; and they’re also likely to end up with an overabundance of resources to help ensure those children’s survival.

Though this is all quite a bit of a leap from the actual data, it does provide an interesting perspective on conquerors like Genghis Khan, whose living descendants number in the millions. Clearly, from an evolutionary perspective, the guy was doing something right.


1. This famous quote, from the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, actually has another layer of meaning – in Latin, the phrase is “Fortes Fortuna adiuvat,” and it literally means that Fortuna, the goddess of luck, helps and supports brave people when they leap into action. So, as unscientific as it may be, it’s still kinda cool to think that when you take risks, a goddess is flying to your aid. Then again, Pliny supposedly said these words right before sailing toward the erupting Mount Vesuvius and suffocating to death on poisonous fumes – so, you know, there’s that.

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