Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Gender and overconfidence in wargames


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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4 responses to “Gender and overconfidence in wargames

  1. Scott 12/11/2019 at 6:17 pm

    See also: Shaeffer et al. (2011). Leadership attributes, masculinity and risk taking as predictors of crisis proneness. Gender in Management: An International Journal 26(2), 163-187.

  2. Scott 12/11/2019 at 6:06 pm

    A good study would require consideration of other variables such as authoritarianism. In an unpublished study f escalation in a nuclear scenario Altemeyer found groups with homogenous RWA scores made less effective decisions than did groups with heterogeneous scores.

  3. cliosboardgames 11/11/2019 at 1:08 am

    So, if men are more overconfident then women, but testosterone does not explain overconfidence within genders, it seems likely that social factors within gender behavior shape these exhibited traits.

  4. Krenn 10/11/2019 at 10:04 pm

    That’s interesting….. it was always a two-player game, and both peace and war were always hypothetically valid options?

    I wish they had more information on how the “negotiation” options actually worked…. was it limited to a single message each round, or was more communication possible? did the negotiation option deputize computer NPC’s to attempt to reach a deal on your behalf? was espionage an available tactic?

    I’m willing to accept that male gamers were more likely to “fail violent”, and pick the war option even when that was a bad idea, but with enough added complexity to the game, I’d be very interested to see if FEMALE gamers were likely to ‘fail peaceful’, and attempt further negotiation or compromise even when THAT was a bad idea….

    And the game should probably be modified slightly to include a prior-plan advantage…. something like +1 to all offensive die rolls if you inform your troops that they will be launching an offensive campaign 1 round ahead of time, and budget accordingly, or +1 to all defensive die rolls, likewise, if you lay in a defense-in-depth plan at least 1 round ahead of time.

    I wonder if this could be turned into an online browser game? or better yet, a 4-6 player version….

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