Overconfidence: From PacMan to ‘Ghost’ Torpedoes


Most 80’s kids will recall Atari- a household name at the time, which birthed a series of wildly popular video games from PacMan to Star Wars. An 80’s kid myself, I was intrigued to discover the use of video games in military training- a fact I chanced upon in a behavioural study on overconfidence and conflict. The authors describe how “the US Army used a modified commercial Atari game Battle-zone for gunnery training”. It also highlighted another war game run by the US Department of Defense back in 2002, which played a fundamental role in “examining scenarios” for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The game came with a whopping price tag of $250 million.

Video games are far from the only interesting premise in this paper, which studies what behavioural scientists broadly term overconfidence. The authors posit that the human predisposition towards overconfidence, or what they call, ‘positive illusions’, has negative implications for conflict decisions. In a lab environment, they asked 200 volunteers to play the role of the leader of a fictitious country, where newly discovered diamond resources lay along a disputed border.

The volunteers were given different alternatives in the computer game- from trading and negotiating with opponents for additional resources, to ‘waging war’, wherein attacks could be launched on opponents. Volunteers were also asked to rate their ‘pre’ and ‘post’ likelihoods of success- and give saliva samples at different stages, to measure testosterone levels.

The authors discovered that players who made higher-than-average predictions of their performance, or in other words, were overconfident, launched more unprovoked attacks against competitors. These players were also more likely to be men, who not only possessed greater overconfidence than their female peers, but also tended towards greater levels of narcissism.

While some naysayers might react to the above with a big fat “so what, how is this at all relevant to conflict?”, still others may allege that what happens in a lab simply does not translate to the real world. These naysayer concerns are addressed in forthcoming paragraphs- but first, an analysis of the phenomenon of overconfidence.

Why the Fuss Over ‘Overconfidence’?

When an individual’s belief or perception in their abilities is higher than their ‘actual’ or realised abilities, behavioural scientists peg the phenomenon as overconfidence. Overconfidence, however, is a more complex phenomenon than simply being optimistic. Moore and Healy describe the three main types of overconfidence as follows:

  1. Overestimation, where individuals overestimate their ability, performance or likelihood of success. The authors use the example of overestimating the speed at which one can complete one’s work.
  2. Overplacement, where individuals overestimate their abilities relative to others. Here, the authors cite a popular study on American and Swedish drivers reporting themselves as better skilled than each country’s median driver.
  3. Overprecision, where individuals have an “excessive certainty” about the accuracy of their beliefs. The authors use the example of posing questions such as, “How long is the river Nile?” and having participants answer with 90% confidence intervals. Individuals are often ‘too sure’ that they know the correct answer.

In the abovementioned computer war game, individuals (particularly men), overestimated their likelihood of success, which falls into the first two brackets by this definition- ‘overestimation’, when individuals overrated their own performance, and ‘overplacement’, when individuals rated themselves as likely to perform better than others.

Overconfidence- Bad for Conflict?

The authors state the following in their paper- “Since militaries are often concerned with how wargames represent real war, there is a significant need to understand human biology and behaviour in wargames, whether or not they also reflect real war.” They are therefore not suggesting that asking participants in a computer game to pick between negotiating and waging war has the same stakes or equivalent payoffs as that of the global political stage.

Instead, studies like these underscore underlying behavioural phenomena that are fundamentally human and could have sweeping consequences, particularly for elected (or indeed, unelected) officials who call the shots on decisions to wage war. That overconfidence seems to be inextricably linked with narcissism- and in some cases, mania, is especially worrisome, given that narcissistic traits have been found to be overrepresented in present day political leaders relative to the rest of the population.

Also of note is the fact that these leaders are overwhelmingly male – a population, as this study suggests, which tends to be ‘overconfident’, possibly translating to greater aggression on the global political stage. Feminists like myself argue that even if women are less ‘overconfident’ than men, these aspects are likely to have arisen from socialisation and rigid gender norms. Regardless of the underlying reason for these disparate behavioural tendencies between men and women, studies such as these add to the debate of the need for the greater representation of women in politics and key decision-making roles. Going by the evidence from behavioural science, women might just be more likely to wage peace than war.

McNamara and The “Fog of War”

In a lecture from the course titled, the ‘Science of Behaviour Change’ taught by Professor Todd Rogers at the Harvard Kennedy School, he plays a video excerpt for the class from the documentary, ‘The Fog of War’. The video depicts scenes from the first and second ‘Gulf of Tonkin’ incidents- on 2nd and 4th of August, 1964 respectively. Former US Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, describes how the second incident on the 4th of August, where attacks were believed to have arisen from North Vietnamese torpedo boats against the USS Maddox, did not actually occur.

In the video, McNamara says, “There were sonar soundings, torpedoes had been detected, other indications of attack from patrol boats. We spent about 10 hours that day trying to figure out what in the hell had happened. At one point, the commander of the ship said, “we’re not certain of the attack”. At another, he said, “yes, we’re absolutely positive… So, I reported to this to President Johnson. And, as a result, there were bombings on targets in North Vietnam”.

It was later discovered that the torpedoes were actually entirely imagined ‘ghost torpedoes’. Since the ‘sonar men’ on board the Maddox were actively looking for signs of attack, they overestimated or ‘imagined’ signs that they via sonar, as actual attacks. An amalgam of ‘overestimation’, ‘overprecision’ and confirmation bias- or an overconfidence in the degree of precision of military intelligence.

President Johnson used these ghost torpedo attacks as the basis to put forth ‘the Gulf of Tonkin resolution’ to Congress, which essentially gave him authority to take the country to war against Vietnam- an apt example of why overconfidence should not be dealt with flippantly.

What it All Means

The McNamara documentary is a testament to the fact that leaders can be overconfident in several ways- towards egregiously dire ends. Perhaps the time is nigh to glean lessons from biases such as overconfidence: that leaders can be prone to error, that male leaders with tendencies towards narcissism might be torpedo-happy, or perhaps, that we need more women represented in the global political sphere.

At the very least, we ought to be aware of the consequences of these biases for decisions on war. An article in the New Scientist, referencing the same computer game study, ends with a quote from Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut, USA. “This study fits within a relatively new field of research which connects motivations of individual people to their collective behaviour,” says Turchin. “One wishes that members of the Bush administration had known about this research before they initiated invasion of Iraq three years ago,” he adds. “I think it would be fair to say that the general opinion of political scientists is that the Bush administration was overconfident of victory, and that the Iraq war is a debacle.”

Aside from ensuring greater awareness of these biases amongst voter bases across the world, perhaps the time has also come to move from PacMan to Miss PacMan, with a greater representation of women in politics- even if behaviour is too complex to segregate into easy-cut boxes, at the very least, it is fair. Besides- in the end, all I am saying is, give peace a chance.


[1] Johnson, D. D., Mcdermott, R., Barrett, E. S., Cowden, J., Wrangham, R., Mcintyre, M. H., & Rosen, S. P. (2006). Overconfidence in wargames: experimental evidence on expectations, aggression, gender and testosterone.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Healy, P. J., & Moore, D. A. (2007). The Trouble With Overconfidence. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1001821
[4] Svenson, O. (1981). Are we all less risky and more skillful than our fellow drivers? Acta Psychologica, 47(2), 143-148. doi:10.1016/0001-6918(81)90005-6
[5] Johnson, D. D., Mcdermott, R., Barrett, E. S., Cowden, J., Wrangham, R., Mcintyre, M. H., & Rosen, S. P. (2006). Overconfidence in wargames: experimental evidence on expectations, aggression, gender and testosterone. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 273(1600), 2513-2520. doi:10.1098/rspb.2006.3606
[6] Positive illusions: creative self-deception and the healthy mind. (1990). Choice Reviews Online, 27(07). doi:10.5860/choice.27-4168
[7] Ludwig, A. M. (2002). King of the mountain: the nature of political leadership. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.
[8] C. (2008, March 04). Gulf of Tonkin: McNamara admits It didn’t happen. Retrieved October 14, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HODxnUrFX6k
[9] Overconfidence is a disadvantage in war, finds study. (n.d.). Retrieved October 14, 2017, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn9374-overconfidence-is-a-disadvantage-in-war-finds-study/

Namrata Raju
About Namrata Raju:

Namrata Raju is currently pursuing a Master in Public Administration degree at the Harvard Kennedy School. Before this, she worked for 7 years on consumer behaviour research, predominantly in the MENA region and other emerging markets.