Why do some people hide their light under a bushel while others promise more than they can deliver? In the latest edition of the Journal of Theoretical Politics, Dr René Lindstädt (University of Essex) and Dr Jeffrey Staton (Emory University, USA) have developed a theory to explain the phenomenon.
The standard explanation for why some people appear to understate their own abilities is that it acts as both a kind of insurance against failure – if others expect little of you, they will not be disappointed if you fail to achieve – as well as a way to impress others when the performance exceeds expectations.
For instance, when Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service presented human rights charges against the former Chilean President General Augusto Pinochet in support of an extradition request in 1999, observers suggested that they began by understating the evidence they planned to present. As the hearing drew on and the compelling nature of the evidence began to emerge, the effect was – according to one observer – ‘devastating’. The Crown won its case.
Dr Lindstädt and Dr Staton refer to the strategy as ‘downward management of expectations,’ and it occurs in a variety of settings, including in the political arena. For instance in the US presidential election in 2000, George W Bush’s campaign team presented its candidate as a poor communicator so that he would appear to perform better in debates (by exceeding expectations), and Ed Miliband, the current UK Labour leader, recently called on his party to ‘under-promise and over-deliver’ as part of the party’s effort at regaining public trust and confidence.
In their article, Dr Lindstädt and Dr Staton develop a game-theoretic model to understand under what circumstances managing expectations is possible and when it is successful. They conclude that ‘under-promising’ can be both aggressive (this is the standard logic) – to exploit the psychology of others to make oneself look better, but also defensive – to protect oneself against the embarrassment of failure. At the same time, they find that managing expectations is not always possible. Under some circumstances, individuals have to present their abilities truthfully lest they be ignored. One case in point is the example of applicants in the current job market (on this see also the coverage of Dr Lindstädt and Dr Staton’s research findings in a recent New York Times article.
It other circumstances managing does not even seem possible since under promising would mean suggesting a truly insulting outcome. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was charged with cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, would have found it hard to downwardly manage expectations because its reputation locally was already so low.
The conclusion is that while it might appear logical for people to always promise less than they can deliver, it is not always possible.