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Daily Archives: 10/11/2019

Gender and overconfidence in wargames

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This isn’t a new piece of research, but I just came across it and thought it might be of interest to PAXsims readers: a 2006 article by Dominic Johnson et al on “Overconfidence in Wargames: Experimental Evidence on Expectations, Aggression, Gender and Testosterone,” in Proceedings. Biological sciences  273, 1600 (2006).

Overconfidence has long been noted by historians and political scientists as a major cause of war. However, the origins of such overconfidence, and sources of variation, remain poorly understood. Mounting empirical studies now show that mentally healthy people tend to exhibit psychological biases that encourage optimism, collectively known as ‘positive illusions’. Positive illusions are thought to have been adaptive in our evolutionary past because they served to cope with adversity, harden resolve, or bluff opponents. Today, however, positive illusions may contribute to costly conflicts and wars. Testosterone has been proposed as a proximate mediator of positive illusions, given its role in promoting dominance and challenge behaviour, particularly in men. To date, no studies have attempted to link overconfidence, decisions about war, gender, and testosterone. Here we report that, in experimental wargames: (i) people are overconfident about their expectations of success; (ii) those who are more overconfident are more likely to attack; (iii) overconfidence and attacks are more pronounced among males than females; and (iv) testosterone is related to expectations of success, but not within gender, so its influence on overconfidence cannot be distinguished from any other gender specific factor. Overall, these results constitute the first empirical support of recent theoretical work linking overconfidence and war.

The full article (at the link above) also includes this experimental finding too:

Finally, in probing the characteristics of individuals that were prone to overconfidence and launching wars, we found that levels of narcissism (as measured by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, Raskin & Terry 1988) were significantly related to pre-game self-rankings. Males (but not females) with high narcissistic qualities tended to expect to do better (all data, Spearman’s ρ=−0.21, N=185, p=0.005; males only, ρ=−0.25, N=106, p=0.012; females only, ρ=−0.20, N=79, p=0.074). Moreover, those males (and again not females) who launched unprovoked attacks on their opponents had significantly higher narcissism scores than those who did not (Mann–Whitney U-test: all data, Z=2.23, N=46,137, p=0.025; males, Z=2.09, N=33,72, p=0.037; females, Z=0.92, N=13,65, p=0.36; see figure 3).

In short, “narcissism scores predicted both overconfidence and unprovoked attacks among males”—but not females.


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Connections NL 2019 AAR

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The most recent Connections Netherlands wargaming conference was held on 28 October, with some fifty or so participants. You’ll find a report on the conference here.


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