The media and business worlds love experts with strong opinions and the ability to explain them confidently and authoritatively. We hear them on TV and read them in newspapers and online every day. Yet a 20-year study shows that these are the very people who are least likely to be accurate in predicting what will happen in the future.
In 1984, Philip Tetlock commenced a study to examine the accuracy of expert predictions. He found these experts fell into two main groups that he called foxes, who know many things, and hedgehogs who know one big thing. Foxes draw on many ideas and sources of information and are quite tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity. Hedgehogs tend to interpret the world using their favourite theory or dogma and are very confident in the ‘rightness’ of their view of the world.[Tschoegl et. al. 2007]
Tetlock, a psychologist, is Professor of Leadership at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. His research found that, in the main, experts were no more accurate in their predictions than ‘a monkey throwing darts’. But he clearly showed that foxes produce much more accurate forecasts than hedgehogs. He also found that when faced with their erroneous forecasts, foxes tended to acknowledge their error and adjust their thinking. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, rationalise their errors away on the basis that they were ‘nearly right’ or ‘unpredictable events interfered in the outcome’ or by pointing to the few occasions when they had got it right.
The implications of this research are many, but one that that reinforces my own experience is to be wary of highly confident people proclaiming a view and running down those with alternative perspectives.
It’s my view that Tetlock’s findings are also relevant in our organisations. We love to treated complex (wicked) problems as if they are technical problems that can be predicted and solved. The experts who stridently proclaim their opinions as being facts are often wrong. The people who stride the corridors and make the most noise are not necessarily the stars. The leaders who are most confident they are excellent at leading people are often the worst leaders.
In media and in organisations, the hedgehogs get the airtime. But the foxes are the ones to listen to.