Fame v. Accuracy in Persuasion

Columnists in both the New York Times and Newsweek in the last few weeks have discussed how often we tend to be persuaded by people who are just plain wrong.  And, as a follow up to our media and conflict resolution conference last week, it was interested to realize what part the media plays in helping the wrong people to continually have outlets for their mistaken predications.  As Sharon Begley wrote:

Pointing out how often pundits’ predictions are not only wrong but egregiously wrong—a 36,000 Dow! euphoric Iraqis welcoming American soldiers with flowers!—is like shooting fish in a barrel, except in this case the fish refuse to die. No matter how often they miss the mark, pundits just won’t shut up…The fact that being chronically, 180-degrees wrong does not disqualify pundits is in large part the media’s fault: cable news, talk radio and the blogosphere need all the punditry they can rustle up, track records be damned. But while we can’t shut pundits up, we can identify those more likely to have an accurate crystal ball when it comes to forecasts from the effect of the stimulus bill to the likelihood of civil unrest in China. Knowing who’s likely to be right comes down to something psychologists call cognitive style, and with that in mind Philip Tetlock, a research psychologist at Stanford University, would like to introduce you to foxes and hedgehogs.

Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times explained this further:

The expert on experts is Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His 2005 book, “Expert Political Judgment,” is based on two decades of tracking some 82,000 predictions by 284 experts. The experts’ forecasts were tracked both on the subjects of their specialties and on subjects that they knew little about.  The result? The predictions of experts were, on average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses — the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board.  “It made virtually no difference whether participants had doctorates, whether they were economists, political scientists, journalists or historians, whether they had policy experience or access to classified information, or whether they had logged many or few years of experience,” Mr. Tetlock wrote.  Indeed, the only consistent predictor was fame — and it was an inverse relationship. The more famous experts did worse than unknown ones. That had to do with a fault in the media. Talent bookers for television shows and reporters tended to call up experts who provided strong, coherent points of view, who saw things in blacks and whites. People who shouted — like, yes, Jim Cramer!

(And, on another Jim Cramer note, you can link here to the excellent interview that Jon Stewert did of Jim Cramer about his inaccurate predictions.)

Back to Kristof’s explanation of why pundits get it wrong:

Mr. Tetlock called experts such as these the “hedgehogs,” after a famous distinction by the late Sir Isaiah Berlin (my favorite philosopher) between hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning, strong convictions; foxes are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance. And it turns out that while foxes don’t give great sound-bites, they are far more likely to get things right.  This was the distinction that mattered most among the forecasters, not whether they had expertise. Over all, the foxes did significantly better, both in areas they knew well and in areas they didn’t.   Other studies have confirmed the general sense that expertise is overrated. In one experiment, clinical psychologists did no better than their secretaries in their diagnoses. In another, a white rat in a maze repeatedly beat groups of Yale undergraduates in understanding the optimal way to get food dropped in the maze. The students overanalyzed and saw patterns that didn’t exist, so they were beaten by the rodent.

Yes, let’s note that again–Yale students beaten by a rat.  I shall refrain from any obvious commentary (other than noting that I am sure that students from my undergraduate institution or law school would never  find themselves in a similar situation!)  As Sharon Begley explained further:

In short, what experts think matters far less than how they think, or their cognitive style. At one extreme, hedgehogs seek certainty and closure, dismiss information that undercuts their preconceptions and embrace evidence that reinforces them, in what is called “belief defense and bolstering.” At the other extreme, foxes are cognitively flexible, modest and open to self-criticism. White House economics czar Larry Summers is seldom accused of having a modest personality, but he displays the fox’s cognitive style: in briefing the president, he assigns numerical probabilities to possible outcomes of economic policies, rather than saying, “This will [or will not] happen.” Similarly, Yale economist Robert Shiller, who forecast the bursting of both the tech bubble in 2000 and the housing bubble in 2006, deploys a flexible cognitive style that works from the data up and not from one Big Idea down. Here’s how to identify fauna: foxes pepper their speech and writing with “however” and “but,” recognizing uncertainty in the face of competing forces. Hedgehogs suffer from no such doubts, which (combined with their adherence to a Big Idea) makes them especially prone to overpredict change: the House of Saud will fall, the European Monetary Union will collapse, Canada will disintegrate like Yugoslavia—in the last case, from the primal force of ethnicity. Leftist hedgehogs, applying the Big Idea that those who oppose dictators are virtuous, failed to foresee the fierce repressiveness of Iran’s 1979 revolution, which overthrew the shah; applying the Big Idea that involvement in regional war = quagmire, they predicted that the first Gulf war would last 20 years and claim 50,000 American lives. Oops.  The media, of course, eat this up. Bold, decisive assertions make better sound bites; bombast, swagger and certainty make for better TV. As a result, the marketplace of ideas does not punish poor punditry. Few of us even remember who got what wrong. We are instead impressed by credentials, affiliation, fame and even looks—traits that have no bearing on a pundit’s accuracy.

Lessons for negotiators?  Beware fame, expertise or too much assurance.  After all, darts might be a better predictor than our counterpart.


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