Evolution of Narcissism: Why We’re Overconfident and Why It Works

David Vs Goliath

David and Goliath, Osmar Schindler (c. 1888)

Christine Dell’Amore writes in National Geographic:

For years, psychologists have observed that people routinely overestimate their abilities, said study leader Dominic Johnson, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Some experts have suggested that overconfidence can be a good thing, perhaps by boosting ambition, resolve, and other traits, creating self-fulfilling prophecies.

But positive self-delusion can also lead to faulty assessments, unrealistic expectations, and hazardous decisions, according to the study — making it a mystery why overconfidence remains a key human trait despite thousands of years of natural selection, which typically weeds out harmful traits over generations.

Now, new computer simulations show that a false sense of optimism, whether when deciding to go to war or investing in a new stock, can often improve your chances of winning.

“There hasn’t been a good explanation for why we are overconfident, and this new model offers a kind of evolutionary logic for that,” Johnson said.

“It’s unlikely to be an accident — we’re perhaps overconfident for a good reason.”

For more information, see original article.

42 Comments on "Evolution of Narcissism: Why We’re Overconfident and Why It Works"

  1. I still think that in the long run it is gonna screw us all.

  2. Anarchy Pony | Sep 18, 2011 at 12:24 am |

    I still think that in the long run it is gonna screw us all.

  3. Before I comment let me say that I’ll go read the article at Nat but my take away from the summery prompt on this site is that overconfidence is not being considered delusional psychosis. I think that tech is causing widespread delusion in the cultures it touches and that should be addressed with concern. Ipodmyspacebookpornphone. How do you explain social media that can elect politicians and yet won’t protest wars? Flash mobs yet no sit-in? no strikes? weaker and disappearing labor unions?

  4. Before I comment let me say that I’ll go read the article at Nat but my take away from the summery prompt on this site is that overconfidence is not being considered delusional psychosis. I think that tech is causing widespread delusion in the cultures it touches and that should be addressed with concern. Ipodmyspacebookpornphone. How do you explain social media that can elect politicians and yet won’t protest wars? Flash mobs yet no sit-in? no strikes? weaker and disappearing labor unions?

  5. Muddle brained muggles

  6. Muddle brained muggles

  7. the argument that natural selection weeds out harmful traits, therefore overconfidence must be beneficial is a bit wonky isn’t it?

  8. the argument that natural selection weeds out harmful traits, therefore overconfidence must be beneficial is a bit wonky isn’t it?

    • Anarchy Pony | Sep 18, 2011 at 1:29 pm |

      Well sometimes things that benefit in the short run lead to problems in the long run.

  9. Anonymous | Sep 18, 2011 at 9:37 am |

    This explains quite a bit about the Ronulans.

  10. Anonymous | Sep 18, 2011 at 9:37 am |

    Over-confidence may well have evolved to lead to some better outcomes for individuals or small groups. If your unrealistic assessment of the situation turns round and bites you on the behind, you and/or your group suffer. If you succeed, all well and good.

    The problem is when this overconfidence proves unfounded and ends up wrecking whole economies, societies, and ecosystems, which is basically what has happened. What’s more, they have gotten away with it and everybody else is suffering.

    I’m not sure over-confidence as an evolutionary trait works so well these days (a bit like how gorging on carbohydrates and fats is no longer so evolutionarily good now we’ve got all this cheap and abundant food)….there’s too much global interconnection for it to be considered good for narcissistic people and groups to be acting on “faulty assessments, unrealistic expectations, and [making] hazardous decisions.” It’s just not good enough these days.

  11. This explains quite a bit about the Ronulans.

  12. Over-confidence may well have evolved to lead to some better outcomes for individuals or small groups. If your unrealistic assessment of the situation turns round and bites you on the behind, you and/or your group suffer. If you succeed, all well and good.

    The problem is when this overconfidence proves unfounded and ends up wrecking whole economies, societies, and ecosystems, which is basically what has happened. What’s more, they have gotten away with it and everybody else is suffering.

    I’m not sure over-confidence as an evolutionary trait works so well these days (a bit like how gorging on carbohydrates and fats is no longer so evolutionarily good now we’ve got all this cheap and abundant food)….there’s too much global interconnection for it to be considered good for narcissistic people and groups to be acting on “faulty assessments, unrealistic expectations, and [making] hazardous decisions.” It’s just not good enough these days.

    • Hadrian999 | Sep 18, 2011 at 11:12 am |

      it may be a evolutionary trait, evolution isn’t nice easy or comfortable, it requires conflict and struggle, the strife caused by overconfidence and the economies it wrecks set the stage for the testing required for evolution to occur

    • Stephanie Buday | Sep 18, 2011 at 9:26 pm |

      Survival traits can lose their function over time due to changes in environment. I think the food analogy works well. We’re attracted to sweets because in harsher times it meant something was edible. Unfortunately today we can walk into any store and pick up a box of Twinkies. We have a survival instinct that no longer works due to the abundance of junk food. Some traits survive long after they no longer have a use, but when the trait becomes of liability it turns into a dysfunctional trait which can kill off a species. Over-confidence may be one of those.

  13. with mass customization in marketing everyone can feel like the world is out just to serve them as long as they have the cash to spend

  14. with mass customization in marketing everyone can feel like the world is out just to serve them as long as they have the cash to spend

  15. Hadrian999 | Sep 18, 2011 at 3:12 pm |

    it may be a evolutionary trait, evolution isn’t nice easy or comfortable, it requires conflict and struggle, the strife caused by overconfidence and the economies it wrecks set the stage for the testing required for evolution to occur

  16. Without saying it in so many words, this article is actually focusing on male behavior.

    In an evolutionary capacity, men are extremely expendable.

    The loss of one or even a few men is quite biologically acceptable if new resources or resource streams are opened up as a result.

    The group benefits, even as the individual perishes.

    Similar results have been seen in simulations where a small percentage of the group stands and fights while the rest of the group retreats. Those that stay and fight frequently buy the lives of the rest with their courage.

  17. Without saying it in so many words, this article is actually focusing on male behavior.

    In an evolutionary capacity, men are extremely expendable.

    The loss of one or even a few men is quite biologically acceptable if new resources or resource streams are opened up as a result.

    The group benefits, even as the individual perishes.

    Similar results have been seen in simulations where a small percentage of the group stands and fights while the rest of the group retreats. Those that stay and fight frequently buy the lives of the rest with their courage.

    • Perhaps you have never heard the term chicken hawk. Those that send others to war and, those that take chances with other peoples lives. Narcissism in men often fails because they can only lie cheat and steal from those around them for a limited time before they receive their well deserved retribution.
      Right now we have an insane system of corporatism and government held in place by minority psychopaths, hidden behind a layer of narcissist, either the system collapses or the psychopathic are deposed.
      What the article failes to cover is that only a minority of parasitical narcissist and psychopaths can be supported before the system collapses into violent self destructive anarchy.

      • You are entirely correct (except for the chickenhawk comment). In fact, we are in much closer agreement than you may suspect.

        I’ll see you at the meeting.

  18. Well sometimes things that benefit in the short run lead to problems in the long run.

  19. Anonymous | Sep 18, 2011 at 6:51 pm |

    Girls like guys with confidence, guys want girls. Confidence shows, or portends to show, a lack of weakness. Girls don’t like weakness. Problem solved.

  20. Girls like guys with confidence, guys want girls. Confidence shows, or portends to show, a lack of weakness. Girls don’t like weakness. Problem solved.

    • Yeah, the Dark Triad works like magic on the women. A bit frightening to contemplate, but I’m in no position to complain.

    • The article is talking about “overconfidence”,  not “confidence”.  Big difference.

      • Not really, it’s basically saying “You like confidence? I’ll show YOU confidence while I take on this lion.” Remember we’re talking about primal urges here. Genes go all out on this stuff. Plus when it pays off, it’ll pay off way more than just plain old confidence.

    • Then an actual Alpha shows up.

  21. everyone sucks but me….

  22. everyone sucks but me….

  23. Survival traits can lose their function over time due to changes in environment. I think the food analogy works well. We’re attracted to sweets because in harsher times it meant something was edible. Unfortunately today we can walk into any store and pick up a box of Twinkies. We have a survival instinct that no longer works due to the abundance of junk food. Some traits survive long after they no longer have a use, but when the trait becomes of liability it turns into a dysfunctional trait which can kill off a species. Over-confidence may be one of those.

  24. Yeah, the Dark Triad works like magic on the women. A bit frightening to contemplate, but I’m in no position to complain.

  25. Anonymous | Sep 19, 2011 at 10:53 am |

    Perhaps you have never heard the term chicken hawk. Those that send others to war and, those that take chances with other peoples lives. Narcissism in men often fails because they can only lie cheat and steal from those around them for a limited time before they receive their well deserved retribution.
    Right now we have an insane system of corporatism and government held in place by minority psychopaths, hidden behind a layer of narcissist, either the system collapses or the psychopathic are deposed.
    What the article failes to cover is that only a minority of parasitical narcissist and psychopaths can be supported before the system collapses into violent self destructive anarchy.

  26. The article is talking about “overconfidence”,  not “confidence”.  Big difference.

  27. You are entirely correct (except for the chickenhawk comment). In fact, we are in much closer agreement than you may suspect.

    I’ll see you at the meeting.

  28. Anonymous | Sep 20, 2011 at 5:52 am |

    Then an actual Alpha shows up.

  29. Anonymous | Sep 20, 2011 at 6:23 am |

    Not really, it’s basically saying “You like confidence? I’ll show YOU confidence while I take on this lion.” Remember we’re talking about primal urges here. Genes go all out on this stuff. Plus when it pays off, it’ll pay off way more than just plain old confidence.

  30. Great post!

  31. Great post!

  32. Narcissistic people have confidence issues. Overestimating your capacity won’t get you anywhere. If you fail, it is certainly you who will suffer. The best tip to avoid being narcissistic is to know exactly who you are, and this can be done in a lot of ways! =)

  33. Narcissistic people have confidence issues. Overestimating your capacity won’t get you anywhere. If you fail, it is certainly you who will suffer. The best tip to avoid being narcissistic is to know exactly who you are, and this can be done in a lot of ways! =)

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