False overconfidence and the 2016 election

After seeing the debates, reading the interviews and hearing the press conferences it is clear that politicians can make some interesting claims.

So far the 2016 presidential campaign has shown us that politicians like to bend the truth.

We speak to Baruch Fischhoff, professor at Carnegie Mellon University, about the phenomenon of overconfidence. Fischhoff is the author of the paper “Knowing with Certainty: The Appropriateness of Extreme Confidence” published back in 1977. Our interview shows its timelessness.

ResearchGate: Your study found that people are generally overconfident in what they think to be correct. And you correlated that to percentages, how so?

Fischhoff: One way to study confidence is ask people to assess the probability that they know the right answer to a question. They are overconfident if, for example, they are correct only 60% of the time when they are 80% confident. They are underconfident if, for example, they know the answer 70% of the time, when they say that they are just guessing (50%; for two-alternative questions). In our 1977 study, and many like it, the most common overall result is overconfidence. However, studies sometimes find underconfidence, with questions that prove unexpectedly easy. Overall, people have some imperfect understanding of the limits to their knowledge.

RG: Why do you think that is? What happens to a person’s confidence when they are proven wrong?

Fischhoff: When someone (or the world) poses a question, people have some immediate feeling about how much they know about the topic. As they think about it more, they adjust from there, based on whatever specific information comes to mind. The harder they work, the more likely they are to understand the limits to their knowledge, especially when questions are posed in ways that encourage reflection. It also helps to get prompt, unambiguous feedback about the appropriateness of their confidence.

RG: What did you make of the political debates for both the Republicans and Democrats?

Fischhoff: Looking past the theatrics, both parties had vigorous debates about issues critical to their constituencies. For the Republicans, those issues include immigration and healthcare. For the Democrats, they include inequality and the Iraq War. These debates are potentially teachable moments, in which good communications can help listeners to understand these complex topics. As someone interested in all of them, I found that I learned more from the Democrats and, conversely, that the Republicans missed an opportunity to explain why they hold their beliefs.

RG: Judging by the Washington Post’s Fact CheckerFactCheck.org, and PolitiFact it appears that Republicans are more likely to make incorrect statements. Is there any explanation for this?

Fischhoff: Without privileged access to what is in someone's heart or mind, one can only guess whether incorrect statements reflect ignorance or dishonesty. I suppose that we should be grateful when politicians say something clearly enough that a fact checker can determine whether it is true.  Politicians often take a gamble when they speak clearly.

RG: Do you think it is better to make a statement that strongly aligns with a candidate’s political message (e.g. Trump: Mexico sends all the bad ones over, Bush: Planned Parenthood is not involved in women’s health issues, Sanders: social security doesn’t add to the deficit) than to actually be correct?

Fischhoff: In these debates, politicians are speaking to multiple audiences. Some care about the details of the argument (e.g., what services does Planned Parenthood provide, how are immigrants absorbed in the domestic economy). Some care about the gist (e.g., whether the candidate supports Planned Parenthood or immigration reform). It takes an adroit, informed politician to reach multiple audiences at once.

RG: What goes through the mind of someone like Ben Carson to state with confidence that: “the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed”?

Fischhoff: I could imagine three general processes at play. One is that Dr. Carson is speaking strategically, more interested in rhetorical impact than in factual accuracy. The second is that he has heard that claim from sources so trusted that he feels no need to examine it further. A third is that he is overconfident in his knowledge about the related events, not realizing what he does not know about the overwhelming power of the killing machines that Hitler and his allies created.

RG: Who do you think will win this election? And with what percentage of confidence?

Fischhoff: That will depend on who turns out to vote. That will depend, in turn, on the attractiveness of the candidates, world events (e.g., the unfolding tragedy in Syria), and the success of attempts to get out the vote and to suppress it. The Democrats have, I believe, a larger natural constituency, but also historically lower turnout rates. My guess is that they will win the Presidential election. However, given the uncertainties, my probability for that happening is 70%.