I’m tired of seeing bits of social science research taken out of context and presented to the public in soundbites that purport to offer insight into life — strategies for being happy or successful.  There’s nothing wrong with seeking better ways to be happy or successful, and to the extent that academic research sheds light on the matter, journalists should examine the research and share it with inquiring non-specialists.  But too often this sharing is done irresponsibly, in the form of soundbites that purport to have the authority of “research” behind them — soundbites that encapsulate a provocative idea without offering the reader enough context to think critically about it.  A particularly dangerous article in this genre cropped up in my newsfeed a few days ago, courtesy New York Magazine: It Pays to Be Overconfident, Even When You Have No Idea What You’re Doing.  Really?

The article summarizes a couple of academic papers that suggest that overconfident behavior — speaking firmly and making exaggerated claims of your ability — leads to increased social status and influence, and that even when people “overestimate their skills so grievously that you might expect to see backlash,” there is usually “insufficient downside” to deter the behavior.  The benefits of overconfidence outweigh the drawbacks, even when the overconfidence has been exposed as such, so you might as well “act like you run the place.”  Donald Trump may be a blowhard but it hasn’t hurt him — he’s still rich and famous, in some part because of his arrogance.

What should we make of this claim by academic psychologists, filtered through popular journalism, that it “pays” to be overconfident?  I should point out that the article is styled as a casual update on recent research, not a definitive statement on the question of how to behave.  The author acknowledges that overconfidence has some disadvantages, and never tells us explicitly what attitude we should adopt.  We are even told that the psychologists who conducted the research are undecided about what its practical implications should be.  But it’s the title of the article that will linger in readers’ minds — “It Pays To Be Overconfident” — along with the idea that this dictum has been somehow vetted by science.  The downsides of overconfidence are never thoroughly explored, the question of what makes good or bad research in psychology is ignored, and the criteria for judging a behavior’s worth are never mentioned: if it “pays” to be overconfident, whom does it pay, and in what measure?

The article mentions the Iraq war as an example of “overconfidence getting us into trouble,” and I feel the key points of the article can be rebutted simply by giving this one terrifying example the attention it deserves.  Why doesn’t the author linger just a little here?  Yes, overconfidence paid off handsomely for a bunch of elected officials as they sought to lure a nation into war.  The beneficiaries of overconfidence were those in power, and the benefit came in the form of influence.  The losers were everyone else: the Iraqis who lost their lives, the U.S. soldiers who lost their lives, an entire group of nations that got sucked into a costly, destructive, and unnecessary war.  As a behavior, overconfidence was both highly valuable to a small group of powermongers and extremely damaging to society at large.  Does it really pay to be overconfident?  Of course the answer depends on whether you look at the immediate returns for the overconfident individual, or at the long-term consequences for the many people in that individual’s sphere of influence.  If we were to judge behaviors by the former criterion — considering only the immediate returns for the perpetrator — it would be just as easy to argue that stealing is beneficial.  And of course, many people think it is.  I don’t.  I don’t think we should live our lives by blindly adopting whatever behavior brings us maximum individual advantage.  I believe we have a moral obligation to behave with honesty and integrity.  Overconfidence conflicts with those qualities, especially when it is adopted as a deliberate social strategy.  To me this point is so obvious that I shouldn’t need to write about it, but I fear that in a sea of soundbites claiming the authority of science, we very easily forget the obvious.


Strategy Reporting

When I turn on the news I very rarely hear political issue reporting.  What I hear is political strategy reporting, and I don’t know what to make of it.

Let’s say there’s a candidate running in some election with lots of Latino voters.  Instead of asking “Why would a Latino voter prefer this candidate’s platform?” journalists are more likely to ask “What is this candidate doing to reach out to Latino voters?”  These are different questions.  The first question requires an analysis of the candidate’s record and policies as they relate to the concerns of a particular group of voters.  The second question only requires a reiteration of what the candidate has recently done or said in effort to look appealing to that group as part of an explicit campaign strategy.

I’ve never planned to run for political office, yet in listening to the news over the past couple of decades I’ve received thousands of hours of political strategy coaching from pundits eagerly describing just what a candidate would need to do to convince someone to vote for them.  Why should I care?

One could argue that to be an informed voter we must understand the tactics of persuasion employed in political races so we won’t be fooled.  And one could argue that a candidate’s strategy reflects something about his or her character — that in analyzing a candidate’s strategy we learn who the candidate is, how they think, and what matters to them, and that in studying how voters respond to campaign strategies we learn about the mood and sentiment of the country.  These are fair points but they don’t address the disaster of political journalism – that in focusing on the endless intricacies of strategy, we lose track of substance.

Strategy is easier than substance and safer than substance to discuss.  A journalist striving to remain impartial never needs to endorse or oppose a candidate’s position, or pass anything resembling judgment on it.  The journalist only needs to ask how the candidate’s recent gestures are likely to be interpreted by voters, a question that can be explored through the endlessly bountiful mechanisms of gossip and polling – certain to fill as much airtime as necessary.

And I, as a voter, am left with little information to use in selecting a candidate, but a whole lot of information I might be able to use in crafting an image that would make me appealing to Latino voters (or black voters, or elderly voters, or young voters, or whatever) if I decided I wanted to enter politics.  No need to pay a campaign strategist, I could just turn on the radio and do what they tell me.

Just today I listened to my local radio station WGBH and got some advice I could use if I were Bill Clinton and I were wondering whether my involvement in Hillary’s presidential campaign would be an asset or a hindrance.  And I got some great advice I could use if I were Chris Christie and I wanted to know whether voters considered my presidential bid to be over.  But since I am neither of these people I’m still struggling to find any practical application for the generous strategy guidance I spent a chunk of my morning receiving.

As for journalistic impartiality, I don’t consider strategy reporting impartial at all.  Journalists who focus on strategy reporting are casting partisan votes in favor of strategy over substance as the thing that’s worth our time.


A little meta-criticism

I grow suspicious when someone praises a work of art by saying “It’s not about X, it’s really about Y,” where X is the immediate subject matter and Y is some lofty theme that is supposedly embedded in the subject matter. The problem I have with this form of praise is that it can be applied to anything, anytime, because a critic can always claim to have identified a deeper theme anywhere; and that’s not to say that thematic connections are always fabricated by the critic, but simply that themes of sufficient generality do have apparent manifestations everywhere – that almost anything in life can be seen as comment on impermanence, or love, or hubris, or whatnot, if you really want to look at it that way. It seems to me that critics wax enthusiastic about the implicit themes in a work of art when they happen to like the work, but in pointing to such themes as the basis for their approval of the work, critics mix up cause and effect: it is because they like the work that they feel compelled to construct a justification for their belief in its aesthetic superiority, and in the making of this justification, they invariably discover a connection between the work and some theme that would confer importance upon it. For example, there could be a guy next to me and I hear him burp. Now, my previous interactions with this person, along with his impeccable reputation, may have convinced me that he is a great artist, and there may be something in his particular style of eructation, which when assessed with immense charity, sounds somehow captivating: I liked the burp. I could then go around saying that this burp wasn’t really about the release of gas from the stomach. Actually, it was about gender stereotypes. It was a parody of machismo, it was a daring provocation that challenged listeners to reconsider the very idea of crassness. Did it sound unpleasant or make you uncomfortable? It was supposed to do that. Good art pushes boundaries. Would you say the artist should have excused himself? You prude! You anti-belcher! Are you blind to the hidden meaning of this gaseous release? It was a deep burp! Now of course if the critic didn’t like the burp, the critic can just as easily marshal one of those negative tropes that may be applied anywhere, anytime: yes, the artist burped, but he didn’t burp in an interesting way. The burp was shallow, its style overwrought, its content conventional. The burp was not a paradigm-redefining burp – it didn’t tell us anything new about the act of burping, or about the world in which we burp. What theme did it grapple with beyond the narrow domain of dyspepsia? This was a burp that did not truly come from the artist’s gut, er…. well… Yes, yes, the artist burped; yes, in fact he’s a virtuoso of the art of burping, but he does it mechanically – there’s no feeling in it, no soul, only hot air!