Friday, March 30, 2007

Winners discount lucky breaks; losers emphasize bad luck

So reports Shankar Vedantam (hat tip Robin Hanson):

Thomas Gilovich, the Cornell University psychologist who conducted the experiment, said this is why a lot of water-cooler conversations among NCAA office-pool participants feature people explaining to others why their predictions went wrong. People don't talk very much about predictions that went right, Gilovich said, because they automatically chalk up those results to brilliant insight. Wrong calls, however, are invariably seen to be caused by fluke events -- which is why they need explaining.

The psychological truth here goes beyond sports fans and NCAA office pools. Our ability to blame fluke events for our errors in judgment affects many aspects of our lives. This phenomenon is perhaps most vividly on display when policymakers and pundits remain endlessly confident about their pronouncements even after they have been proved breathtakingly wrong on major questions such as the outcome of the war in the Iraq. (You know who you are.) "People have explanations for the things that went badly so they can be set aside -- 'I made the right prediction but for that fumble in the fourth quarter' -- so they walk out with their confidence intact," Gilovich said. Experts say, "Okay, I was wrong about the Soviet Union, but everything I said makes perfect sense if it wasn't for this one unpredictable factor."

"Experts are very wrong, but they don't think they are wrong because a lot of mistakes are coded as near misses," the psychologist added. "So their intuitive hit rate is higher than the actual hit rate."

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