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Lord David Owen's analysis of hubris and nemesis in heads of government (JRSM November 2006)1 is a valid and useful set of medical insights into a topic of literally life and death importance. But we also need to ask why overconfident men—and it is mainly men—rise to power so often, and yet also then make so many political and military blunders.2
Evolutionary psychology is the effort to identify those universal human behaviours that adapted us to the environment in which we evolved—primarily a world of small competing clans of hunters and gatherers.3 In such a world, where conflict was frequent (in preliterate societies, adult mortality from warfare is rarely less than 10% and can rise to 50% or more4) overconfidence could have been adaptive. The ability to bluff an enemy into submission and genuine optimism in the face of heavy adverse odds may well have been promoted by natural selection.5 In Iraq, Bush and Hussein both showed a similar lack of reality (Hussein was convinced the Americans would never invade and that if they did his forces would win, while Bush is quoted as ‘relentlessly optimistic’ and convinced the postwar occupation ‘would resemble the American liberation of Germany and Japan’).6
Democracies need to be led by intelligent, curious, analytical, and cautious leaders of either sex. Unfortunately, our political systems (and especially the US system of primaries to select presidential candidates) tend to select overconfident men. The first step in overcoming this danger is correct diagnosis, and the JRSM is to be congratulated on beginning this process.
Competing interests None declared.