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Overconfidence is the human norm

Thu, 15th Sep 2011

Chris Smith

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Humans have evolved to develop an over-inflated sense of our own abilities, which David and Goliathultimately helps us to survive against the odds, scientists have discovered.

It sounds counter-intuitive that a penchant towards over-confidence should be biologically beneficial, but by crafting a mathematical model in which notional "players" compete for limited resources and decide whether to fight or back down based on an assessement of their opponent's apparent strengths, researchers James Fowler from UCSD and Edinburgh University scientist Dominic Johnson have shown that the best strategy is to err on the bullish side.

In other words, the costs of walking away from conflicts you might win are outweighed by the potential gains that come with taking a gamble if the prizes are sufficiently large. This over-egging of human self-belief might explain a lot about our behaviour, such as financial bubbles, wars we cannot win, tendencies to smoke or drive dangerously and even, Johnson points out, complacency about climate change.

Published in the journal Nature, the study also goes some way to explaining why a staggering 94% of University lecturers, when asked, rate their teaching skills as "above average". In fact, the only people who appear to have an accurate view of the world are those suffering from depression who display what's known as "depressive realism". And judging by their experiences, the advantages of pepping up our personal attributes are clear.

"It's this unrealistic view of the world is what gets us through life," says Johnson.

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Take a hundred numbers, say 94 10s and 6 8s. What's the average? 9.88? Right! Now, what fraction of the numbers is above the average? 94%? It can't be, because Dr. Chris said that's impossible! etrino, Wed, 21st Sep 2011

The way to calculate an average is not under debate; instead the crux of the story is that 94% of those surveyed described themselves as of "above average" teaching ability. Therefore, the point is that clearly the population perception of personal ability is biased towards the positive and this was the starting point for the model Johnson and Fowler created. They wanted to ask why this biological bent towards over-exaggeration exists and whether it confers an evolutionary advantage, which it appears to.

chris chris, Wed, 21st Sep 2011

Chris, your point is well taken. Even to the casual observer, it is frighteningly true. If only all universities had 94% of their faculty rating (objectively) 10 for 10. Jerry, Fri, 23rd Sep 2011

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