President Trump is well known for, among other things, a great deal of self confidence. He had long held that repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) would be easily accomplished. Yet, as president, he soon learned this was not the case, stating: “Now, I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” Of course, many politicians, healthcare providers, and lay people knew all along that healthcare was complicated and that unravelling a previous healthcare system would be a serious challenge. Just ask former President Barack Obama.

But Trump is hardly alone in exhibiting extreme overconfidence. Consider the following examples from British politicians with regard to Brexit (for example, Britain’s plan to leave the European Union). These examples are from Conservative (Tory) politicians:

  • “So be under no doubt….we can do deals with our trading partners, and we can do them quickly...” (David Davis, Brexit Secretary)
  • [Re: A new free-trade deal with the EU and access to EU markets] “should be one of the easiest in human history” (Liam Fox, International Trade Secretary)
  • “Getting out of the EU can be quick and easy, the UK holds most of the cards in any negotiation” (John Redwood, MP for Wokingham)

To anyone following the Brexit affair, these statements look incredible. The trade agreement within the EU is probably one of the most complex trade agreements in history, with tentacles reaching into almost every aspect of governance. Indeed, the trade agreement is so complex that experts are not even sure how the unravelling process itself will work. But it is pretty safe to say that the process will be long and agonizing (not short and painless), and that the UK is not in a strong bargaining position relative to the massive political entity that is the EU.

So why do politicians speak this way?

One answer is purely political. Voters like confident speakers and seem to admire “clear vision” and a lack of hesitation from their leaders. Political overconfidence, therefore, sways voters. And arguably the audience is a willing participant in this process. Like audience members watching a magician, citizens want to see the impossible look easy and effortless.

But there is a psychological aspect that speaks to the overconfidence in all of us. For instance, Roger Buehler’s research shows that people overwhelmingly underestimate the time required to do a vast range of tasks (for example, students writing an essay), and that this tendency is very common. They call this the “planning fallacy”. Worryingly, people generally fail to look to their past behaviours when making this assessment, and are quite resistant to interventions designed to counteract this tendency (Buehler, Griffin, and Ross, 1994).

There is likely a functional reason that we do this: if we really knew how long tasks, especially complex ones, would take, we would be reluctant to engage in the course of action. Most Ph.D. students, for instance, are unaware of how much time and dedication their degree will require; arguably many would be put off by the prospective if they fully comprehended this feat in advance. Undoubtedly, most cities seeking to host the Olympics underestimate the resources and time required in such an endeavor. Put this way, being “overconfident” might have tremendous payoffs for “getting things done."

But it is important to recognize that most of us are overly confident, that is, we are confident for unfounded reasons. When we see politicians promising us that very complex tasks (such as winning wars, or restructuring major government services or trade arrangements) will be easy to accomplish, we ought to pause and consider the relevant factors. We need to keep in mind that most people express such overconfidence, and that our politicians are people too, yet with extra incentive to communicate their overconfidence to a public yearning for confidence.

References

Buehler, R., Griffin, D., & Ross, M. (1994). Exploring the “planning fallacy”: Why people underestimate their task completion times. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 366-381. 

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