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The evolution of overconfidence

Abstract

Confidence is an essential ingredient of success in a wide range of domains ranging from job performance and mental health to sports, business and combat1,2,3,4. Some authors have suggested that not just confidence but overconfidence—believing you are better than you are in reality—is advantageous because it serves to increase ambition, morale, resolve, persistence or the credibility of bluffing, generating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which exaggerated confidence actually increases the probability of success3,4,5,6,7,8. However, overconfidence also leads to faulty assessments, unrealistic expectations and hazardous decisions, so it remains a puzzle how such a false belief could evolve or remain stable in a population of competing strategies that include accurate, unbiased beliefs. Here we present an evolutionary model showing that, counterintuitively, 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. The fact that overconfident populations are evolutionarily stable in a wide range of environments may help to explain why overconfidence remains prevalent today, even if it contributes to hubris, market bubbles, financial collapses, policy failures, disasters and costly wars9,10,11,12,13.

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Figure 1: Best performing levels of confidence across different parameter values.

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Acknowledgements

We thank C. Barrett, D. Blumstein, L.-E. Cederman, D. Fessler, P. Gocˇev, M. Haselton, D. Nettle, J. Orbell, K. Panchanathan, M. Price, D. Tierney, R. Trivers, N. Weidmann and R. Wrangham for discussions and help leading to this paper.

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D.J. and J.F. conceived the study. J.F. performed the modelling. D.J. and J.F. analysed the results, revised the models and wrote the paper.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Text and Data 1-7, (see Contents for details), which includes Supplementary Figures 1-4 with legends and Supplementary Table 1. (PDF 3868 kb)

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Johnson, D., Fowler, J. The evolution of overconfidence. Nature 477, 317–320 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10384

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