Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Doubtful Pedantry

Do we perform better in life when we are confident in our assumptions? Are we more likely to believe people who express certainty and is there a correlation between certainty and expertise?

It might be thought that certainty is a prerequisite of expert knowledge. Experts know their stuff and it is upon this foundation that the authority of their opinions is grounded. How otherwise can an expert ever claim to be – or be thought to be – an expert?

But it may not be quite so simple.

In a study undertaken last year by researchers at the Harvard Business School it was found that people are more likely to be persuaded by the opinions of experts who express a degree of uncertainty about their subject. The findings are explained by what the researchers have dubbed “expectancy violations” where people become alerted to unexpected evaluations in both expert and amateur testimonies. In the case of amateur testimony the phenomenon works in reverse: we are more likely to believe the opinions of amateurs when expressed with certainty (since we do not ‘expect’ amateurs to be confident in their knowledge).

There’s no guarantee that this phenomenon applies across the board but it certainly raises some interesting questions - and doubts even - about the assumption that expertise should always be presented authoritatively*.

“The authority of those who teach is very often an impediment to those who desire to learn.” –Cicero

This challenge to common sense assumptions about the value of authority and self-confidence has also been investigated by researchers at the University of Illinois and the University of Southern Mississippi who studied the effects of self-talk (I will fix it!). They asked half the participants in their study to write out “I will” 2o times whilst they asked the other half to write “will I” 20 times. They then asked all the participants to work on a series of anagrams. Surprisingly the participants who had been asked to write “will I” solved nearly twice as many anagrams as those who had written “I will”.

Most self-help gurus would tell us that affirmative statements like “I can do it!” are always better than questioning statements like “can I do it?” but it turns out that this little nugget of received wisdom may be completely wrong. Or as Bertrand Russell put it:

"One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision."

*Presumably there must come a point though where too frequent an expression of doubt by an expert would begin to erode their professional credibility, so it certainly wouldn’t seem advisable to take this as a licence to express every opinion with uncertainty. The whole point is that such expressions should be unexpected.


Tamsin said...

It was my impression, at least from my early experiences, that in the art world it was those who pushed who got the exhibitions and the recognition. A friend of mine who has been a painter all his life was recently saying that he still felt this to be true - that the confident ones seemed to 'get places', whilst those who were uncertain were less recognised. I guess this is a little different from whether or not people are persuaded by experts, but I wondered what your experience was of this in art...

I can imagine that the people who thought 'I will' in that experiment might be used to forcing and blustering their way through difficulties - and perhaps that this determination to conquer might stop them from taking a wider, more exploratory view, looking left and right and being open to unexpected clues...

J. Hamlyn said...

Yes I think that’s probably quite right. The experiment tests for lateral or ‘divergent’ thinking and therefore it wouldn’t have picked up anything ‘convergent’ (more binaries - sorry!) like determination for instance. But then again what use is determination if it doesn’t get results? (I’ll come back to this).

There was actually a follow up experiment conducted by the same researchers where instead of asking people to complete as many anagrams as possible they asked how often they intended to exercise over the coming week. Apparently the people who had written “will I” in this instance also did indeed exercise more and were more intrinsically motivated.

It all sounds a little too neat and tidy to be true somehow but I think your point about the influence of mindset is an important one. I’d certainly like to know if the “I will” statement might be more appropriate for physical tasks for instance or ones that might require, as you say, “forcing and blustering their way through difficulties”. Now wouldn’t that be an interesting finding?

You also asked about the influence of confidence and uncertainty upon the recognition that artists receive. In my experience it’s just like any other walk of life: confidence and determination certainly seem to propel individuals forward where others struggle… but there is rarely any correlation with quality.

James A said...

In Future Babble (Virgin, 2010) Dan Gardner reports Philip Tetlock's work evaluating the predictions of economists, and the inverse correlation between their confidence and certainty, and the likelihood of accuracy.

J. Hamlyn said...

Thanks James. I’ve heard of Tetlock from several sources (including you I'm sure) but I didn’t realise that there was an inverse correlation between expert confidence and accuracy. I’ll have to look further into that.

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