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Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Secrecy, Confidence, and Public Opinion

In 2013, three researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder—Mark Travers, Leaf Van Boven, and Charles Judd—published a paper in the journal Political Psychology entitled “The Secrecy Heuristic.” They gave students two documents, one from the National Security Council and one from the State Department. Half the students were told that the NSC document was classified and that the State Department document was public. Half were told the reverse. And although the classified and nonclassified documents were exactly the same, the students gave more weight to the one they thought was secret. The researchers’ conclusion: There is a secrecy “heuristic”—a mental shortcut that helps people make judgments. “People weigh secret information more heavily than public information when making decisions,” they wrote. A 2004 dissertation on jury behavior found a similar tendency. When judges told jurors to disregard certain information—once it was deemed secret—the jurors gave it more weight.
If people use secrecy as a heuristic to gauge importance, they use confidence as a heuristic to gauge competence. As Cameron Anderson, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, explained to me, “There is a lot of research showing that when people exhibit confidence, they come across as more competent, intelligent, skilled, and so forth.” The word con man, the Harvard professor and former Obama-administration official Cass Sunstein has noted, is short for confidence man. That’s because “when con men succeed,” Sunstein observes, “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.” Thus, they win people’s trust.