Reported in New Scientist:
EVER wondered why the pundits who failed to predict the current economic crisis are still being paid for their opinions? It's a consequence of the way human psychology works in a free market, according to a study of how people's self-confidence affects the way others respond to their advice.
The research, by Don Moore of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, shows that we prefer advice from a confident source, even to the point that we are willing to forgive a poor track record. Moore argues that in competitive situations, this can drive those offering advice to increasingly exaggerate how sure they are. And it spells bad news for scientists who try to be honest about gaps in their knowledge...
The findings add weight to the idea that if offering expert opinion is your stock-in-trade, it pays to appear confident. Describing his work at an Association for Psychological Science meeting in San Francisco last month, Moore said that following the advice of the most confident person often makes sense, as there is evidence that precision and expertise do tend to go hand in hand. For example, people give a narrower range of answers when asked about subjects with which they are more familiar (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, vol 107, p 179).
There are times, however, when this link breaks down. With complex but politicised subjects such as global warming, for example, scientific experts who stress uncertainties lose out to activists or lobbyists with a more emphatic message.
The last observation reminds me of psychologist Philip Tetlock's research on experts. Tetlock found that ideologically-driven experts come across as more certain, but they tend to be less accurate forecasters than experts who qualify their views and admit uncertainty into their opinions.