A cottage industry has emerged these days around trying to predict which way the Bihar election will go. I don’t want to add to it. And this is not a column explaining who will win the Bihar elections and why. Enough of that has been written and discussed in the media.
The irony in all this is that people sitting in television studios and writing editorials in newspapers, who have never visited Bihar, are perhaps the most confident on which way the election will go. Don’t ask me how.
Nevertheless, there is some logic to it. Dan Gardner explains this in Future Babble—Why Expert Predictions Fail and Why We Believe Them Anyway: “There is a “confidence heuristic”. If someone’s confidence is high, we believe they are probably right: if they are less certain, we feel they are less reliable, this means we deem those who are dead certain the best forecasters.”
As Gardner further writes: “Another problem with the confidence heuristic is that people may look and sound more confident than they really are. Con men do this deliberately. We all do, to some degree. Of course most of us don’t do it brazenly as con men – one hopes – but we all sense intuitively that confidence is convincing. And so, when we are face to face with people we want to convince, we downplay our doubts, or bury them entirely.”
So being confident and forceful about what you say makes for good television and great reading. And that explains why people sitting in studios in Delhi and Mumbai are making the most confident forecasts about who will win in Bihar.
Research also shows that when there is a competition to make forecasts, the forecasts people make get more and more confident. as we go along.
What does this mean during election time? When every political analyst is busy making forecast, if someone wants to standout then he has to make clear and confident forecasts. And that is precisely what has been playing out in television studios up until now.
You are likely to see more of that once election results start coming in and by 10AM tomorrow morning, it will be more or less clear who is likely to form the next government in Bihar—the Nitish Kumar led Grand Alliance—or the Narendra Modi led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
Once the results are out political analysts will offer us explanations on why the results happened to turn out the way they have. If Narendra Modi led NDA wins, then we will hear stuff like the Modi magic is still at work, people have taken Modi’s promise of a separate Rs 1.25 lakh crore development package for Bihar seriously and so on. Some cheeky analyst might also suggest that all the statements made by the “so-called” fringe elements in the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), also helped bring in the votes.
If the Nitish Kumar led Grand Alliance wins, you will hear analysts stay stuff like there was no anti-incumbency at work. The development carried out by Nitish Kumar has worked. The women have come out in full force to vote for him given all the development projects targeted towards women Kumar carried out. And voters in state elections have once again shown that development gets you votes.
Given that it is Bihar election results that the analysts will be analysing, there is bound to be some analysis along caste lines. You are likely to hear stuff like the Muslims plus Yadavs, the base on which Lalu Prasad Yadav ruled Bihar for a long time, voted for the Grand Alliance en masse. Hence, all the statements made by the so-called fringe elements in BJP did not work.
So if the BJP wins we will be told that the statements by fringe elements may have added the icing on the cake. If it loses, we will be told it didn’t work.
Long-story short, we will be told a lot of stories explaining why things happened the way they did. As Gardner writes: “People love stories, both the listening and the telling. It’s a central part of human existence, found in every culture, in every place, in every time…For explanation-sharing to work, however, a story cannot conclude with “I don’t know” or “The answer isn’t clear.”” The narrative should be complete. Incomplete stories do not work.
Hence, there will be no shortage of explanations and stories on why things happened the way they did in Bihar. Political analysts will come up with extremely coherent reasons on why things happened the way they did. You won’t hear phrases like “I don’t know” or words like “maybe” or “possibly”. In fact, some analysts will even say stuff like “as I have been saying all along”. In case of television channels the “I” will become “we”.
Even those who get their forecast wrong (and believe me there will a lot of them) will revise their forecasts. As Jason Zweig writes in The Devil’s Financial Dictionary: “Once you learn what did happen, your mind tricks you into believing that you always knew it would happen. Contrary to the popular cliché, hindsight is not 20/20; it is barely better than legally blind.”
This tendency is referred to as hindsight bias.
Hindsight bias is also referred to as “I knew it all along effect”. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in Fooled by Randomness: “Our minds are not quite designed to understand how the world works, but, rather, to get out of trouble rapidly and have progeny…Psychologists call this overestimation of what one knew at the time of the event due to subsequent information…the “I knew it all along” effect.”
The Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman talks about this phenomenon in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, in the context of the financial crisis which broke out in late 2008.
As he writes: “I have heard of too many people who “knew well before it happened that the 2008 financial crisis was inevitable.” This sentence contains a highly objectionable word, which should be removed from our vocabulary in discussions of major events. This word is, of course, knew. Some people thought well in advance that there would be a crisis, but they did not know it. They now say they knew it because the crisis did in fact happen.”
Something similar will play after the Bihar election results as well. Depending on the result, people will adjust their analysis and say “I knew this will happen”.
So if Nitish wins they will say, I knew this will happen, even if they had been predicting a Modi win earlier. And vice versa.
This is not a good thing. As Kahneman writes: “What is perverse about the use of know in this context is not that some individuals get credit for prescience that they do not deserve. It is that the language implies that the world is more knowable than it is. It helps perpetuate a pernicious illusion. The core of the illusion is that we believe we understand the past, which implies that the future also should be knowable, but in fact we understand the past less than we believe we do.”
Given this, it’s best not to waste time watching all the analysis that will pour in on Bihar elections, all through the day tomorrow and on Monday.
Switch off the television.
Take your kids out for a spin.
Buy some gold for your Mother. And your wife. Or your girl-friend (It’s Dhanteras after all).
Or just pick up a good book and read.
The column originally appeared on The 5 minute Wrap Up on Equitymaster on Nov 7, 2015