"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Power prompts less accurate time predictions: study

March 26, 2010
Courtesy of the University of Kent
and World Science staff

Having more power leads to great­er er­rors in pre­dict­ing how long a proj­ect will take to com­plete, ac­cord­ing to new re­search.

The study found that when peo­ple feel pow­er­ful they be­come more op­ti­mis­tic and less ac­cu­rate in pre­dict­ing the com­ple­tion time of forth­com­ing tasks, with er­ror rates ris­ing up to 70 per­cent.

“Time is a cru­cial fac­tor in peo­ple’s eve­ry­day lives,” said so­cial psy­chol­o­gist Ma­rio Weick of the Uni­vers­ity of Kent, U.K., who led the stu­dy. “Peo­ple rou­tinely plan their work and es­ti­mate the time it will take to ac­com­plish tasks. In­ter­est­ing­, peo­ple of­ten un­deres­ti­mate the time it takes to ac­com­plish tasks. This bi­as is known as the plan­ning fal­la­cy and de­rives from a too nar­row fo­cus on the en­vis­aged goal. The more peo­ple fo­cus on what they want to achieve, the more they tend to ne­glect im­ped­i­ments, pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ences and task sub­com­po­nents that are not readily ap­par­ent. As a re­sult, time pre­dic­tions are of­ten inac­cu­rate and too op­ti­mis­tic.”

For powerful people, the prob­lem seems to be not so much that they “have great­er faith in their abil­i­ties or that they see things through rose-tinted glass­es,” Weick added. Rath­er, “pow­er tends to in­crease peo­ple’s fo­cus on in­tend­ed out­comes. Al­though this can be ben­e­fi­cial, in the con­text of time plan­ning,” it may “lead to great­er er­ror in fore­casts.”

Weick, with Ana Guinote of Uni­vers­ity Col­lege Lon­don, car­ried out four ex­pe­ri­ments in­di­cat­ing that when peo­ple felt pow­er­ful they tended to un­deres­ti­mate more the time it took to ac­com­plish var­i­ous tasks, rang­ing from mun­dane ac­ti­vi­ties to im­por­tant proj­ects. 

The find­ings sug­gest that peo­ple who are in charge and de­cid­ing on cours­es of ac­tion, such as pol­i­cy­makers, are more at risk to fall prey to bi­ases in their fore­casts, the sci­en­tists said. The re­search al­so pro­poses ways to al­le­vi­ate this ef­fect, such as by us­ing tech­niques that draw peo­ple’s at­ten­tion to in­forma­t­ion out­side their fo­cal goal. The re­search is to be pub­lished by the Jour­nal of Ex­pe­ri­men­tal So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy.

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Power leads to greater errors in at predicting how long a project will ake to complete, according to new research. The study found that when people feel powerful they become more optimistic and less accurate in predicting the completion time of forthcoming tasks, with error rates rising up to 70%. “Time is a crucial factor in people’s everyday lives,” said social psychologist Mario Weick of the University of Kent, U.K., leader of the study. “People routinely plan their work and estimate the time it will take to accomplish tasks. Interestingly, people often underestimate the time it takes to accomplish tasks. This bias is known as the planning fallacy and derives from a too narrow focus on the envisaged goal. The more people focus on what they want to achieve, the more they tend to neglect impediments, previous experiences and task subcomponents that are not readily apparent. As a result, time predictions are often inaccurate and too optimistic.” The problem seems to be “not so much that people in power have greater faith in their abilities or that they see things through rose-tinted glasses,” Weick added. Rather, “power tends to increase people’s focus on intended outcomes. Although this can be beneficial, in the context of time planning,” it may “lead to greater error in forecasts.” Weick, with Ana Guinote of University College London, carried out four experiments indicating that when people felt powerful they tended to underestimate more the time it took to accomplish various tasks, ranging from mundane activities to important projects. The findings suggest that people who are in charge and deciding on courses of action, such as policy makers, are more at risk to fall prey to biases in their forecasts, the scientists said. The research also proposes ways to alleviate the biasing effects of power, such as by using techniques that draw people’s attention to information outside their focal goal. The research is to be published by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.