Female-perpetrated terrorism and overconfidence

Overconfidence is, as we have discussed, a practically ubiquitous human trait. It affects judgement and decision-making. If affects outcomes. It may affect fitness and survival. There are also important differences in degrees of overconfidence between males and females that are relevant to understanding how females engage in terrorism and how female terrorists make decisions. The primary result is that women are not as overconfident and do not display as much risk seeking behaviour as men (Croson & Gneezy 2009; Barber & Odean 2001; Correll 2001; Bengtsson, Persson & Willenhag 2005).The primary implication is that female terrorists will not engage in as much activity as male terrorists and, consequently, will not engage in actions beyond the point at which their expected outcomes begin to decline.

One of the most interesting questions that arises from a consideration of the implications of these findings for female-perpetrated terrorism is whether the ‘terrorist identity’ will overrule the male-female distinctions in overconfidence and risk seeking that characterise ordinary people. Suspecting that this might be the case in the finance industry, Beckmann & Menkhoff (2008) decided to investigate whether the differences in male-female overconfidence and risk seeking disappeared in the highly competitive risk-taking environment of professional funds management. They found, somewhat contrary to their expectations, that all of the previous findings in the economics and psychology literature were evident even in this particular context (Beckmann & Menkhoff 2008, p.367):

Testing the ‘expertise dominates gender’ hypothesis surprisingly ends in a victor)' for the gender difference. Whether we take descriptive statistics or control for a large set of competing influences, the gender variable always shows the sign as expected from the earlier literature, i.e. women will indeed be women even in the demanding environment of fund management. However, the economic importance of the gender difference varies. First, female fund managers keep their more risk averse behaviour but on the other hand the effect is comparatively weak for the established risk measures. Second, we reject the view that women are less overconfident than men for the case of fund managers (although coefficients’ signs hint at the expected direction). This finding is robust to an extension of three different measures of overconfidence, i.e. overoptimistic self-assessment, illusion of control and miscalibration. Third, evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that female fund managers shy away from competition. Fourth, the relative economic importance of the gender-related difference in explaining behaviour is sometimes small in comparison to competing influences, indicating that indeed financial expertise decreases the gender difference—but does not erase it.

Among the other findings about overconfidence, the evidence presented by Beckmann and Menkhoff (2008) also supports a conclusion that females ‘shy away’ from competition. Gender differences in competitiveness have been studied extensively. The results can sometimes be mixed but other studies report strong findings of more competitiveness among males than females (e.g. Hibbard & Buhrmester 2010; Gupta, Poulsen & Villeval 2011; Buser, Niederle & Oosterbeek 2014). We know from Johnson & Fowler (2011) that overconfidence can play a critical role in encouraging people to make a claim for resources that they would not otherwise win and in discouraging the abandonment of a conflict that they would surely win. The relatively lower degrees of overconfidence displayed by females shapes (and possibly determines) their competitiveness, which is also lower than male competitiveness. In a conflict over scarce payoffs, females may be less likely to compete leading us to suspect that female-perpetrated terrorism might have different objectives than simply maximising share of available resources or payoffs.

Evidence that female-male differences in overconfidence may persist in specialised contexts specifically involving conflict is also strong. In a study of the influence of overconfidence on war-games decisions, Johnson et al. (2006, p.2513) found that

in experimental wargames: (i) people are overconfident about their expectations of success; (ii) those who are more overconfident are more likely to attack; (iii) overconfidence and attacks are more pronounced among males than females; and (iv) testosterone is related to expectations of success, but not within gender, so its influence on overconfidence cannot be distinguished from any other gender specific factor ... our key finding is that males were overconfident; and males who were more overconfident were more likely to launch wars.

That is, testosterone does affect pre-game ranking but gender is the dominant explanatory factor, regardless of testosterone level. At this stage, there is no reason why we would not expect to see gender differences in overconfidence between male and female terrorists.

We are left with a similar problem to that which we came across earlier. That is, does a lower degree of overconfidence increase or decrease the threat level? Female terrorists will display less overconfidence but although this may draw them away from certain types of attacks or from high frequency engagement, it does not mean that the attacks that they do perpetrate will be any less damaging. Over time, female terrorists may be more successful in terms of maintaining a higher average payoff per attack. Whatever the case may be, overconfidence certainly makes us think differently about the threat posed by female terrorists. When approaching the task of ranking suspects for surveillance, such as the formation of a terrorism watch list, there might be a tendency to rank female suspects lower than males (based on threat assessment). However, care should be taken not to overlook the fact that while gender differences in overconfidence may make female terrorists less active and less likely to enter fiercely into the competition for a share of the payoffs that characterise the terrorism context, it does not mean that a steady, less ambitious, less risk seeking perpetrator is not a very significant threat. Female terrorists, male terrorists and terrorist groups that have a lower degree of overconfidence are a different type of threat. This is perhaps the key insight delivered by decision theory up until now.

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