Thursday, May 02, 2013

Is Confidence Better Than Correctness?

I wish I could locate a discussion a few years ago - it may have been at Volokh Conspiracy, but I'm not finding it - asserting that confidence won out over correctness in many leadership situations, and wondering if there were an ev psych component to this.  It's entertaining to draw up leadership scenarios in the imagination and game out the results.  How do we get to where the food/trading spot/home fires are?  Being correct would seem to weigh heavily there.  Yet uncertainty might keep the tribe from acting at all, or at least, quickly enough; thus correctness would not enjoy a 100-0 advantage.  Just getting everyone started in some approximately accurate manner might be more valuable.  What is our strategy for this hunt/raid/battle? Same thing, and certainty might be even more important.  How shall this dispute among tribesmen be resolved? Folktales of many lands to the contrary, there isn't that much incentive to get this right, rather than just resolved. Sounding like one is right might be more important than actually being right.

That of course is only about the tribe's survival, a necessary but not sufficient condition of the survival of one's own genes.  Yet similar risks and rewards occur within the tribe in competition for resources. In those cases as well, being persuasive rather than correct might be the better strategy.  Persuasive, in this discussion, would include undermining or intimidating competitors, as well as inspiring confidence in the rest of the team.

BTW, the game board is different for women, and there is enormous variety, but I think the same correctness-confidence tradeoffs apply.

The equations may change a bit in the move to pastoral, then agricultural, then trade-and-industrial societies, but the uncomfortable reality remains.  It may be a better strategy to be convincing than to be wise.  In fact, that may be exactly what plays out in electoral politics.  We put our trust in a particular place - a party, a few news sources, a general ideology (Keynes' long-dead-economist), a half-dozen friends - and get along with our day from there.

With all that as introduction, James has interesting thoughts on our news sources.

Postscript: yes, I think it applies to academic and political debate as well.


Der Hahn said...

Not sure why this is even subject to debate. Not that many questions have a single life-or-death answer. The location of the nearest water in a desert might be close but even being right is no guarantee you won't get stung by scorpion or run into a sandstorm before you make it. Even a wrong answer might lead to the happy accident of finding a better hunting ground or easier route though some difficult terrain.

I work better when I make a choice and follow through (while holding a plan B in reserve) than attempt to come up with the 'correct' solution.

ErisGuy said...

I certainly have an anecdote on point.

The math teacher in calculus forced us to work in groups occasionally. A physics major claimed to know how to do the problems, so she led. Turns out she didn’t know. 100% confident; 0% correct. Wasted the whole ninety minutes.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Ah, but what was her evolutionary fitness?

Sam L. said...

As I read on Althouse, some guy said "it's 6 dozen of one" and another chimed in "or half a gross of the other".

Texan99 said...

I don't know beans about being a leader, but as a follower I appreciate decisiveness in my leader. If he's decisive I'll at least have a chance to evaluate whether to keep following. If he's indecisive he's of no use to begin with: he's just a bottleneck.

It's possible to confuse decisiveness with certainty, though. No one wants a leader who blindly picks a path and then can't evaluate new information that might suggest a course change.

jaed said...

A slightly off-kilter question: it's a truism that in combat (or similar situations - emergencies), an indecisive leader can set off a panic. It's one reason for the advice to give some order, any order, immediately, and preferably in a confident tone of voice. It instills confidence in everyone else, focuses them, makes them less likely to flee screaming.

Which makes me wonder whether the post perhaps has the wrong end of the stick. Instead of asking about leadership behavior, let's ask about follower behavior. Is it adaptive to panic when the leader sees indecisive?

Maybe so. If the leader doesn't know what to do, the survival benefit of being in an organized group is probably nonexistent. The members will do better to scatter; most likely, some of them will survive.