Reassurance Game

The needy narcissist wants your support.

Posted May 09, 2020

When I was a kid, I got no respect. I told my mother, I'm gonna run away from home. She said, 'On your mark.' —R. Dangerfield

In group, a young woman — let’s call her Em — complained that no one liked or respected her. Em was a talented concert pianist from a country near Para- or Uruguay. Her mental condition was uncertain. Perhaps it was something in the borderline region. Em continued to spray the group with assertions of being neglected, thereby dominating much of the session.

Repeated reassurances that she was liked and accepted fell flat. Em persisted. Eventually, a group member — let’s call him Fra — declared, “Em, you are right. To tell you the truth, no one likes you.” Em teared up and left the room. No one offered an assessment of what happened. We shall return to this episode at the end of this essay.

Most people seem to be quite self-assured, at least when research psychologists check in on them. Most of the time and with regard to most of their properties, they think they are better than the average person.

This form of comparative self-enhancement bias is robust, resilient, and not small in size (Zell et al., 2020). And it is not an artifact of sampling bias. In a representative survey of the U.S. population, 65% of the respondents thought they are more intelligent than average (Heck et al., 2018).

These findings raise the question of whether self-enhancement is good for you. Is it adaptive to fancy oneself better than average even if that self-evaluation is wrong? In general, more positive self-evaluations are associated with greater happiness and well-being, but it is far from clear whether self-evaluative bias or error contribute to this association (Humberg et al., 2019; Krueger et al., 2017).

A related question is whether self-enhancement is good for one’s reputation. In general, it is not. People dislike braggarts and other self-enhancers (Heck & Krueger, 2016). Particularly, individuals openly claiming to be more moral (or humbler) than average tend to meet with suspicion.

Then what about those who self-efface? Will they be liked more? We (Heck & Krueger, 2016) did not find that those who modestly claim to be worse than others reap a special humility credit. Why not? In this essay, we will take a look at (false) modesty as a strategy. Why does it not pay off?

Let’s assume the worse-than-average claimant is not lying. He (or she or they) truly feels inferior. A painful version of this mental state of affairs is the impostor syndrome, which has sparked more interest in the street than in the academy.

An impostor syndromite holds beliefs such as “I am afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as they think I am” (Leary et al., 2000). This kind of belief motivates the continued deception of others. If you are worried that others find out that you are dumber than they thought you were, you might try to do everything you can to maintain this illusion. Or not. An alternative is to throw yourself at the mercy of the observing other, reveal your inferiority, and beg for forgiveness.

The narrative that goes with the impostor syndrome tends to assume that the impostor’s self-perception is false, that he actually is not inferior. As I have noted elsewhere (Krueger, 2020), this may or may not be the case. Some impostors who are worried about being found out have a case. 

J. Krueger
The Reassurance Game
Source: J. Krueger

Be that as it may, let us put our game theory hats on and consider the impostor syndromite’s gambit. The confessing impostor seeks wish fulfillment. He wants reassurance (Kaufman et al., 2020), but he may not get it. This is the dilemma. To formalize the scenario, we imagine an impostor I and an observer O. Each as two strategies. I chooses between confession and stoicism. O chooses between reassurance and dismissiveness. The matrix on the left shows the intersections of the strategies and the players’ (I and O) preference rankings with higher numbers indicating better outcomes. Within each cell, the number on left refers to the row player’s (the impostor’s) preferences.

For player I, let’s assume the following preference rankings. I would most like to confess and be reassured (4), followed by receiving reassurance without even confessing (3). He would dislike being stoic and ignored (2), but not as much as confessing and being dismissed (1). In other words, I’s primary interest is to have a reassuring partner (3 + 4 > 1 + 2), and his secondary interest is to anti-coordinate with him. If O is nice (reassuring), I would play needy (seeking reassurance, which is not nice); if O is tough (dismissive), I would play nice (by stoically abstaining from confessing) (4 + 2 > 3 + 1).

For player O, let’s assume that he would most like to face a stoic I and do nothing (4), followed by giving reassurance to an I who had not asked for it (3). He would dislike dismissing a needily confessing I (2), but not as much as reassuring the confessor (1; for he would feel used). In other words, O’s primary interest is for I to not confess (4 + 3 > 2 + 1); his secondary interest is to withhold reassurance (because it is costly; 3 + 1 < 4 + 2).

Together, these two sets of preferences amount to a reassurance game. I’s and O’s interests are misaligned (in a way that is more closely relate to the game of chicken than to the conventional assurance game). How might the game play out if both parties can re-assess their best move given the other player’s latest move? Suppose I blunders in with a confession hoping to get reassurance. But he won’t get it from a resentful O. Now, finding themselves in the worst position overall, the lower right cell in the matrix (with 1 for I and 2 for O), I switches to stoicism (supposing a confession can be undone). Here (the upper right cell of the matrix), I (2) and O (4) find themselves in a Nash equilibrium that is good for O. O has no incentive to switch to reassurance, and I will not return to confession. I is left alone with his feelings of inferiority.

A mutually acceptable and fair outcome can only be achieved if both parties make a small concession. I would have to dispense with the needy confession, and O would have to provide some supportive reassurance. Of course, this would not satisfy I’s deepest desire, which is to be able to abjectly contradict O’s praise. When impostors confess their presumed inferiority, they not only reveal their biases in social perception, but also a lack of self-control.

Now consider again Em, the troubled virtuosa from the Rio de la Plata. She gamed it poorly. She blundered in, seeking reassurance (without even confessing to imposturing) but did not collect her winnings when reaping a positive response. She persisted, wanting more 4s while leaving 1s to her peers. When one peer, Fra, switched to dismissal, Em left with a mere 1 in hand, missing her chance to move up to a 2 with a return to stoicism. Then again, this need not be surprising because mental-health conditions can reduce rationality.


Heck, P. R., Simons, D. J., & Chabris, C. F. (2018). 65% of Americans believe that they are above average in intelligence: Results of two nationally representative surveys. Plos One.

Heck, P. R., & Krueger, J. I. (2016). Social perception of self-enhancement bias and error. Social Psychology, 47, 327-339.

Humberg, S., Dufner, M., Schönbrodt, F. D., Geukes, K., Hutteman, R., Küfner, A. C. P., van Zalk, M. H. W., Denissen, J. J. A., Nestler, S., & Back, M. D. (2019). Is accurate, positive, or inflated self-perception most advantageous for psychological adjustment? A competitive test of key hypotheses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116, 835–859.

Kaufman, S. B., Weiss, B., Miller, J. D., & Campbell, W. K. (2020). Clinical correlates of vulnerable and grandiose narcissism: A personality perspective. Journal of Personality Disorders, 34, 107-130.

Krueger, J. I. (2020). Porfessorial pain. Psychology Today Online.

Krueger, J. I., Heck, P. R., & Asendorpf, J. B. (2017). Self-enhancement: Conceptualization and assessment. Collabra: Psychology, 3(1), 28.

Leary, M. R., Patton, K. M., Orlando, A. E., & Funk, W. W. (2000). The impostor phenomenon: Self-perceptions, re ected appraisals, and interpersonal strategies. Journal of Personality, 68, 725–756.

Zell, E., Strickhouser, J. E., Sedikides, C., & Alicke, M. D. (2020). The Better-Than-Average Effect in comparative self-evaluation: A comprehensive review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. doi:10.1037/bul0000218