Why Cockiness Trumps Competence

Faced with complex or uncertain choices, we trust cocky people over people with a proven track record. When the “rock solid” advice these cocky people turns out to be flat wrong we trust them a little less, but most of us are still going to trust them again, over an alternate adviser with a solid track record.

This study (where people were asked to judge the weight of unfamiliar people they only saw in photos with the help of advisers with different degrees of confidence in their own guesses) may help explain some things that bewilder more than a few of us.

In the United Kingdom (a name we may soon be replacing with “England”) Boris Johnsson definitely sounded a lot more confident than his ex friend David Cameron. He had no data, and virtually none of the experts on his side but that just forced the Brexit campaign to sum their reasons for leaving the most successful peace and free trade area in the world with something as simple and confident as “Rule Brittania!” or “Take Brittain back”.  Cameron relied on information and just about every expert there was, but the Brexit campaign just said “We have had it with experts”. The cocky side won.

But the title as “cockiest guy on planet earth” still has to go to Donald Trump.  He is competing against the possibly best prepared candidate for the office ever, and so far he’s holding his own. That’s a bit like seeing an elephant fly, but this study explains why. Donald Trump is not Dumbo. He doesn’t need those big ears to fly. He just needs to be unbelievably cocky at a time when Americans feel insecure. In insecure choices, we choose confidence over proven competence. After years of turmoil in Washington, the choice feels insecure.

Trump framed mouth

The Democrats are right in reminding America that things are actually going quite well. There’s a lot of turmoil out there, but the American economy is ticking on. And this election is really quite simple. One candidate has all the requirements for the job. The other has none.

J.R. Radzevick and D.A. Moore. “Competing to be Certain (but wrong)”. Social pressure and Overprecision in Judgement. (Working paper 2009). I found this study in James Montiers lovely book “The little book of behavioural investing”. 

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