The latest Pew Poll shows that only 64% of Governor Romney’s supporters expect their man to win, and only 17% expect their man to lose. 82% of President Obama’s supporters expect their man to win, with only 3% expecting him to lose.
In theory, the question of who should win and who will win are independent. In practice they’re not.
Four factors contribute to this:
- We like thinking our side is going to win. [Our preference affects our expectations]
- We tend to support the candidate we expect to win. [Our expectation affects our preferences.]
- The information sources we listen to and believe shape the narratives of who should win and who is winning in the same direction. If you’re hearing about Benghazi, you’re also hearing about the Rasmussen and Gallup polls. If you’re hearing about Governor Romney’s flaws and gaffes, you’re also hearing Nate Silver projections and specific reports about Ohio early voting. It’s actually quite jarring to wade into your opponent’s blogosphere and realize you’re in an alternate reality with not just different opinions but entirely different news stories. [The same external event influences our expectations and preferences in the same direction]
- We often assume that our understandings are self-evident and that others will ultimately understand things the way we do. We downplay how much we and others are influenced by different mental frameworks, as well as exposure to different stories.
The same dynamics are in play when evaluating potential business strategies. We tend to overestimate the likelihood of success of our own projects and underestimate the likelihoods of other people’s projects.
More generally, we don’t form an independent opinion on specific issues; our expectations are greatly influenced by context.
How do I get my people to see things more objectively?
The first step in getting other people to see things more objectively: acknowledge and consider your own biases. Strive for greater objectivity but never fool yourself into believing that you’ve reached it.
And don’t think that as an intelligent and informed manager you’re more immune. As Dan Gardner points out in (the excellent) Future Babble, the more you understand and care about an issue, the more likely you are to be deceived by your biases.
The more your teammates believe that you’re aware of your own biases and fallibility, the better the odds that they’ll admit to theirs. When the biases are open and acknowledged you have a better chance of mitigating their effects.
Believing your own hype
There are benefits to believing your own hype. The old adage “if you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re right” contains some truth.
But willpower and self-confidence will get you only so far. At some point self-confidence turns into hubris and optimism turns into destructive delusion. Sometimes you really do need to see the world the way it is and not the way you hope to make it.
I know one CEO who exudes confidence, but makes sure to complement himself with some naysayers. Makes for conflict, but the conflict is unavoidable, and it’s often better to have it between people than within an individual. And ultimately that CEO does recognize his fallibility and generally refrains from major decisions to which his naysayers oppose.
Another approach is to embrace your fallibility. George Soros wrote “I know that I am bound to be wrong, and therefore am more likely to correct my own mistakes.” It’s hard to maintain enthusiasm while combating our bias for optimism. Which is probably why we have the optimism bias in the first place.
A third approach is to embrace the optimism bias. Sometimes believing does make it so.
In many ways the ideal is to have an environment where failure are quick, cheap, and survivable, and then let the optimists try to fly within that framework. But that still may involve somebody with power not drinking the Kool Aid.
You can find your own strategy for maximizing the benefits of an optimism bias while minimizing the costs. I think acknowledging our own bias and fallibility should usually be the first step.
On Election Day, only 3% or 17% of the defeated candidate’s supporters will have correctly called the election. The scariest thing is that even as I write this post I’m quite certain my guy has it in the bag, and that the other side’s analysts and partisans are delusional. Our biases run deep. And it’s far easier to acknowledge that they affect others than to acknowledge that we’re not immune. Next Wednesday, I may learn this post’s lesson the hard way. But I doubt it.