Why a little self-delusion can be a very good thing

In general, the more aware of reality you are, the more likely you are to survive. But sometimes lying to yourself has its advantages. Possessing an over-inflated belief in yourself can help you perform better than accurately knowing your abilities.

That's the finding of new research from the University of Edinburgh and UC San Diego. They found that overconfidence actually leads to better results in a number of situations, in everything from business to warfare. It's basically scientific proof of Pliny the Elder's legendary maxim that "Fortune favors the bold." Admittedly, he said that right before sailing his ship into the path of the erupting Mount Vesuvius and, you know, dying.

But in non-Pliny-related scenarios, the researchers found that bolder strategies tend to do better than more cautious, realistic ones. They built a mathematical model that simulated generations of conflict, allowing them to pit different strategies against each other. The overconfident strategists didn't always win, but when they did win, they won huge, taking in more than enough reward to make all their faintly stupid risks worth it.

The researchers also think there might be a natural selection component to all this as well. In the long run, overconfident people are perhaps more likely to leave a great number of descendants, which might mean humans in general become more susceptible to overconfidence. As with most evolutionary psychology arguments, this seems like a bigger leap than the available evidence really indicates, so I'm skeptical on this bit.

That said, they suggest that overconfidence works particularly well in unfamiliar situations, where it's difficult to even make an accurate assessment of one's position. Faced with an unknown enemy or technology, the best course may be to simply assume that you can win until proven wrong. In that scenario, it might make some sense why overconfidence is an desirable trait from an evolutionary perspective, particularly since so much of human history seems dominated by exploring unfamiliar and potentially dangerous situations.

Dr. Dominic Johnson of the University of Edinburgh sums up their research:

"The model shows that overconfidence can plausibly evolve in wide range of environments, as well as the situations in which it will fail. The question now is how to channel human overconfidence so we can exploit its benefits while avoiding occasional disasters."

Via Nature. Painting of the death of Pliny by JMW Turner via.