This column is really good. Actually it’s amazing. In less than 650 words, it will explain the success of President Donald Trump - and also show how to beat him.
Behavioral scientists like to emphasize the role of heuristics, or mental shortcuts, in our thinking. Lacking statistical knowledge, we use rules of thumb. In deciding whether a product or activity is risky, people tend to ask: Do I know about situations in which someone actually got hurt? That’s the “availability heuristic” in action.
One of the least well-known rules of thumb is called the “confidence heuristic,” which was initially explored in 1995. The central idea is simple. When people express beliefs to one another, their level of confidence usually reflects how certain they are. It tells us how much information they have. When we are listening to others, we are more likely to be persuaded by people who seem really confident.
Since 1995, empirical research has shown that groups tend to be most influenced by the views of their most confident member. Most of us are more likely to find confident people to be credible. Sure, confidence isn’t a magic bullet. If people who are confident are shown to be wrong, their credibility will suffer. But they usually get the benefit of the doubt.
In this light, we should revise our understanding of the whole idea of the “confidence man” - con man, for short. It’s usually thought that the con man finds a way to earn people’s trust, and then takes advantage of them. But when con men succeed, it’s usually because they enlist the confidence heuristic. They don’t show any doubts. They act as if they know what they are doing.
There are obvious lessons here for aspiring and actual leaders in politics, business, education and elsewhere. For example, Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania has found that most people respond more enthusiastically to simple, clear rhetoric from leaders, downplaying tradeoffs, than to complex rhetoric that points to competing considerations and that can easily be seen as a sign of weakness.
Many successful politicians show an intuitive awareness of the confidence heuristic. Among American presidents, John F. Kennedy stands out, but Ronald Reagan was probably the master. A president has to be pretty confident to say this: “I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of national emergency, even if I’m in a cabinet meeting.” Or this: “I’ve noticed that everyone who is for abortion has already been born.”
But President Trump outdoes Reagan - not through wit, humor or charm, but through a kind of joyful, thuggish certainty about his own amazingness. “I alone can fix it,” he said during the campaign. “Nobody’s ever done a better job than I’m doing as president,” he says now.
Sure, Trump’s braggadocio turns many people off, and his critics ridicule him for it. But to his supporters, it’s appealing and even contagious. And for people who aren’t sure whether to support him, it can be highly effective. Many voters think: If he’s so sure of himself, he’s probably right.
I have noted that when confident people are shown to be wrong, people tend to stop believing what they say. On many questions, Trump has been shown to be wrong; consider his claim that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, or that the audience for his inauguration was “the biggest ever.”
But that’s less of a problem than it might be. One reason is Trump’s constant complaints about “fake news,” which provide him with some inoculation against those who seek to expose him. For many people, his confidence makes him credible (if perhaps overenthusiastic).
There’s a general implication here for politicians and presidential aspirants on the Democratic side. Jimmy Carter, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton have many strengths, but their tendency to see both sides of an issue, and their occasional willingness to display ambivalence and uncertainty, can be electoral liabilities. Such inclinations are easily taken as signs of weakness.
The good news is that confidence can be accompanied by generosity and grace (as in the cases of both Kennedy and Reagan). In the coming years, that’s going to be a winning combination.
Trust me on this. You can take it to the bank.
Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “The Cost-Benefit Revolution” and co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”