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Success stories cause false beliefs about success

George Lifchits, Ashton Anderson, Daniel G. Goldstein, Jake M. Hofman and Duncan J. Watts

Judgment and Decision Making, 2021, vol. 16, issue 6, 1439-1463

Abstract: Many popular books and articles that purport to explain how people, companies, or ideas succeed highlight a few successes chosen to fit a particular narrative. We investigate what effect these highly selected “success narratives” have on readers’ beliefs and decisions. We conducted a large, randomized, pre-registered experiment, showing participants successful firms with founders that all either dropped out of or graduated college, and asked them to make incentive-compatible bets on a new firm. Despite acknowledging biases in the examples, participants’ decisions were very strongly influenced by them. People shown dropout founders were 55 percentage points more likely to bet on a dropout-founded company than people who were shown graduate founders. Most reported medium to high confidence in their bets, and many wrote causal explanations justifying their decision. In light of recent concerns about false information, our findings demonstrate how true but biased information can strongly alter beliefs and decisions.

Date: 2021
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