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Overconfidence in politics

Don Moore, professor, Haas School of Business | January 7, 2011

Congress greets the new year with a crop of newly elected representatives, many of whom have ridden to power on a wave of discontent with the Democratic political leadership. There is a sense that President Obama is failing to substantiate all the hope his campaign inspired.

Barack Obama

In truth, Obama’s presidential approval ratings follow a predictable pattern. A new president sweeps in to power on a wave of optimism and euphoria that does not persist. Why not? The answer puts Obama in good company, and has something to do with overconfidence.

I study overconfidence among all sorts of people, from business leaders and politicians to college students and office workers. And my research shows that most people are vulnerable to overconfidence. We are excessively confident that we know the truth and have correctly seen the right path forward to prosperity, economic growth and moral standing. Research results consistently show that people express far more faith in the quality of their judgment than it actually warrants. Our politicians are even more inclined toward overconfidence than the rest of us, for at least two reasons. The first is that the process of political campaigning effectively selects the most confident — those who can go out day after thankless day, asking people for their votes and their money.

Honesty comes in second

The second is that the competitive rivalry of a campaign invites candidates to express more confidence than the other guy. Who is going to earn your vote — the honest or the confident candidate? When Walter Mondale told voters that he would raise their taxes, they gave a landslide victory to his opponent, Ronald Reagan, the picture of presidential confidence, if not honesty. History testifies to the victory of confidence over honesty at the polls.

Having elected the most confident candidate, who has won our votes by promising us glory and prosperity, we cannot help but be disappointed when this talented and idealistic politician’s plans run headlong into the realities of a political system that hamstrings him with checks, balances, and entrenched interests who put the brakes on those ambitious plans.

Promises, promises

As predictable as this pattern is, it could also be desirable. On average, the evidence suggests that if we want to pick the candidate who will deliver the most, voting for the candidate who promises the most might be a good way to go. But we should expect that, when elected, he will deliver less than he promised. Obama’s failure to bring down unemployment does not imply that we’d have been better voting for John McCain, because unemployment might have been even higher under his leadership.

And what should we expect from the new 112th Congress? Certainly less than their voters hoped for, and probably less than they promised. Indeed, polling already suggests that the public is skeptical that the new Republican majority in the House can restore the economy and bring down unemployment by cutting taxes for the rich and the dead. The enthusiasm that brought them to power will fade, and threatens to turn into renewed political cynicism.

Instead, allow me to suggest that boldness and confidence among our elected officials may not be such a bad thing, but that we as voters would do well to understand the dynamics of the political game in our democracy. Candidates will overpromise and underdeliver. The former is why we elect them, and the latter is a consequence of the former. In any case, it is entirely predictable.

Cross-posted from USA Today.

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