02/08/2012 03:28 pm ET | Updated Apr 09, 2012

The Dangerous Allure of Political Promises

Newt Gingrich, angling for votes in Florida, recently promised that, as president, he would establish a lunar base by the end of his second term. Aside from the obvious charge that he was pandering for votes in the Sunshine State ahead of its Republican primary, most thoughtful people know that delivering on that promise is nearly impossible. Barack Obama promised, in the first year of his presidency, that unemployment would not rise above eight percent. For the past three years, it has not gotten even down to that level.

Americans are justifiably leery of political promises, whether from candidates or presidents. They have seen too many made and too few kept. The cynicism that promises generate increases the distrust of politics and politicians. We ought to abhor political promises -- except that we like to hear them. We are acknowledged political junkies -- give us a promise and, even knowing that we will be disappointed, we'll take it and ask for another hit. We thus collude in our own political dissatisfaction.

Why? As it turns out, our minds -- and those of politicians -- feed on overconfidence. We want to believe not only the promise but that the person who made it can deliver.

A recent book by Nobel-winning economist/psychologist Daniel Kahneman helps explain this. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, he shares two intriguing research studies. One, conducted by Philip Tetlock, looked at 80,000 predictions of economic and political events made by 284 pundits who earned a living based on their ability to make these forecasts. As Kahneman puts it, "The results were devastating." The pundits actually did worse than if they had just guessed with no attempt at analysis. In another study, conducted by Kahneman himself, the ability of 25 investment advisors to forecast economic trends over an eight year period was computed by looking at how their ranking (among the 25) in one year compared to their ranking in the next. Had some of the advisors been really prescient about the economic future of the investments they suggested, they would have retained high rankings year after year and this would have led to a high correlation coefficient. The results: the average correlation was 0.01.

These were knowledgeable people, as are politicians. Yet their ability to predict -- or deliver -- using their expertise was essentially no better than chance. This does not mean there were stupid or devious. It does mean that they had confidence well beyond their capabilities.

Kahneman suggests that pundits and investment advisors (and we might, by extension, add politicians) are overconfident predictors for several reasons. First, they cannot see their overconfidence as a weakness (even after they see the results!). Second, they live in a professional culture that supports their belief in their own expertise. Third, they do not see the part that luck plays in the formula: results = skill + luck. They think they can (understand and) control more than they can. Fourth, they assume intuitive skills they cannot have. Intuition is based on building patterns in an area that can be predicted and thus learned, through trial and error with clear and fairly quick feedback. For example, you can become a chess master after years of play because you see all kinds of board situations and moves, and your moves lead to results whose success or failure are immediate. But economic futures and political events are too complex, thus do not lead to clear patterns, cannot be predicted, and rarely can be tied to single actions that have clear results and immediate feedback. In short, neither Obama (nor his advisors) could possibly have understood the economy at a level sufficient to make his promise, and Gingrich cannot possibly know all the events, trends, political, economic and social forces that will come into play should he try to deliver on his lunar promise. Finally, of course, overconfidence sells. People like to hear that the impossible can get done, especially at low cost.

If voters understood all of this, they might become less inviting of promises that are usually impossible to keep. If they stop demanding such promises -- or if they even question them harder, politicians might feel less compelled to make them or more honest in their statements about what they can and cannot deliver. Our skepticism about political promises illustrates that we do understand this at a subconscious level.

Next time you hear a political promise, question whether the maker can possibly understand and control events sufficiently to bring it about. That may put us all on the road to more reality and fewer illusions in politics.

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