Human Nature

, Volume 23, Issue 1, pp 98–126 | Cite as

Dead Certain

Confidence and Conservatism Predict Aggression in Simulated International Crisis Decision-Making
  • Dominic D. P. Johnson
  • Rose McDermott
  • Jon Cowden
  • Dustin Tingley


Evolutionary psychologists have suggested that confidence and conservatism promoted aggression in our ancestral past, and that this may have been an adaptive strategy given the prevailing costs and benefits of conflict. However, in modern environments, where the costs and benefits of conflict can be very different owing to the involvement of mass armies, sophisticated technology, and remote leadership, evolved tendencies toward high levels of confidence and conservatism may continue to be a contributory cause of aggression despite leading to greater costs and fewer benefits. The purpose of this paper is to test whether confidence and conservatism are indeed associated with greater levels of aggression—in an explicitly political domain. We present the results of an experiment examining people’s levels of aggression in response to hypothetical international crises (a hostage crisis, a counter-insurgency campaign, and a coup). Levels of aggression (which range from concession to negotiation to military attack) were significantly predicted by subjects’ (1) confidence that their chosen policy would succeed, (2) score on a liberal-conservative scale, (3) political party affiliation, and (4) preference for the use of military force in real-world U.S. policy toward Iraq and Iran. We discuss the possible adaptive and maladaptive implications of confidence and conservatism for the prospects of war and peace in the modern world.


Confidence Overconfidence Conservatism Aggression Evolution Politics 



We thank David Carrier and three anonymous referees for their help in improving the manuscript. DJ thanks the Branco Weiss Society In Science Fellowship for funding. Finally, we especially thank Elizabeth Cashdan for her encouragement and advice on the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dominic D. P. Johnson
    • 1
  • Rose McDermott
    • 2
  • Jon Cowden
    • 3
  • Dustin Tingley
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of Politics and International RelationsUniversity of EdinburghEdinburghUK
  2. 2.Department of Political ScienceBrown UniversityProvidenceUSA
  3. 3.Department of Social WorkSJSUSan JoséUSA
  4. 4.Department of GovernmentHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA

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