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Trump and the siren song of confidence

Don Moore, professor, Haas School of Business | February 22, 2017

Homer spun a chilling tale about the power of the Sirens’ song. Their beautiful voices beckoned passing ships into a fatal trap. When selecting leaders, most of us are tempted by something like the Sirens’ song: confidence. My research with colleagues suggests that confident people are more likely to be selected as leaders. When we studied groups in our research laboratory, it was those who were most sure of themselves who emerged as leaders. They spoke first, most, and with the greatest conviction. Confident people inspire faith that they know what they are doing; after all, they sound so sure of themselves. People who express confidence are more likely to attain status in groups and more likely to wield influence over others.

Ulysses and the Sirens

It makes perfect sense for us to select confident people as leaders as long as that confidence reflects competence. All of us want leaders who know what they’re doing. When people are asked why they follow those who are most confident, they routinely report that it is because they believe that they are most likely to help the group succeed.

The problem is that confidence is an unreliable signal of competence. In fact, my research shows that the correlation between confidence and competence is usually weak or nonexistent. Students who are the most sure they know the answers to a test are not those who actually score the best. Part of the problem is the imperfection of self-insight; it is hard for people to perfectly know when they deserve to be confident. Another part is that many would-be leaders correctly appreciate the benefit of displaying confidence and are thus motivated to show unwarranted confidence.

If there was ever a powerful example of the triumph of confidence, it is the election of Donald Trump. Trump came to the presidency with both a complete lack of government experience and grandly confident claims and promises. His inexperience stood in marked contrast to his opponent’s long and impressive list of credentials. Savvy politicians like Hillary Clinton studiously avoid making specific falsifiable claims that can later come back to bite them. Yet Trump has not only been unusually vague in terms of specific policy proposals; he has also made plenty of absolute claims that he will almost certainly have trouble living up to, from making Mexico pay for a border wall to bringing back heavy manufacturing jobs in the Rust Belt and having a secret plan for defeating ISIS.

What does the research suggest about how we can defend ourselves against the overconfident? First, we should compare their claims with the facts. We should compare a leader’s prior statements with his or her record of achievement. Were promises delivered on? We should also demand clear, specific commitments for the future, and we should be skeptical of vague assertions, implausible promises, and excuses for prior failures.

Trump’s record contained plenty of warning signs, from failures to pay contractors to bankruptcy declarations and the dubious record of Trump University. American voters overlooked these worrisome signs and listened instead to the allure of the candidate’s show of confidence, embodied by his impossibly grand promise, “I will never let you down.”

The attraction of his confidence was strong enough to draw voters away from the guidance of nearly every newspaper in the country that endorsed a candidate, as well as from leaders across the political spectrum, including all living former presidents. American voters followed the siren song of confidence when they voted for Trump. But over the next four years, sharp rocks lie ahead.

Crossposted from the Forbes website:

Comments to “Trump and the siren song of confidence

  1. “Those of us in academia, in the press, and in the leadership positions of both parties, warned Americans against electing Donald Trump. He won anyway.”

    This proves that we must find a better way today or we shall continue to lose our quality of life to global warming, violence, inequalities and increasing numbers to threats to our survival.

    As Churchill said: “Never Give Up!” He lead the free world to WWII victory against overwhelming odds with that exhortation.

    Time is running out and destructive consequences of global warming are increasingly out of control.

    UC must produce ways to inform, teach and motivate the human race to demand ways to save itself, or we shall most certainly destroy the future for our newest generations because of our failures today.

    Politicians keep betraying us because of the power of money that controls far too many of them and, according to Will and Ariel Durant in “The Story of Civilization,” intellectuals are our only option to meet the challenges of change before we run out of time as reported in CALIFORNIA alumni magazine’s Sept-Oct 2006 “Global Warning” cover story “Can We Adapt in Time?

    UC must take the lead today!

  2. I wish I could say I was optimistic about intellectuals in academia helping to inform a wider electorate. But this last presidential election was a stunning repudiation of the wisdom of elites across the political spectrum. Those of us in academia, in the press, and in the leadership positions of both parties, warned Americans against electing Donald Trump. He won anyway. In fact, some probably voted for Trump specifically because they wanted to overthrow the established order, or maybe just poke a stick in the eye of the elites.

    • A couple of most interesting coincidences occurred when I just received my new March NGM where the Editor in Chief published an “On The Side Of Science” editorial on global warming.

      She concluded with a quote by our own Eric Hoffer:
      Perhaps philosopher Eric Hoffer put it best: “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”

      My wife and I enjoyed reading “The True Believer” while we were at Cal taking PoliSci 120A in the 60s, but most sadly, even though we thought we had produced a lot of social progress with Pres. Johnson’s Civil Rights Act and the Free Speech Movement, we appear to have started the decline and fall of American Democracy soon after.

      Eric was right again.

  3. Prof. Moore, I want to thank you and Robert Reich (“7 Signs of Tyranny”) for your latest posts in order to educate us to conclude that Trump, Jong Un and Putin are the 21st century versions of Hitler, Tojo and Stalin.

    Today, we are faced with increasingly grave threats to the human race including global warming, violence and inequalities.

    I hope that you, Reich and many others can form a group of intellectuals and politicians throughout the world to meet the challenges of change that have caused so many other civilizations to fail as documented by Will and Ariel Durant.

    The paramount question today is:
    Can intellectuals and politicians join together to inform, teach and motivate us in time to save us from ourselves?

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