Thinking Like a President

Thursday, November 13, 2008

By Wray Herbert

As the nation's post-election celebration begins to quiet down, even the most loyal Barack Obama supporters are confronting the grim reality ahead and wondering: How can the 44th president possibly succeed? He faces an economic train wreck at home as well as two hot wars abroad, and on top of that he’s promised to fix an awful lot: a dysfunctional health care system, a substandard educational system, and more. How can one man comprehend, much less solve, problems of this magnitude?

Presidential scholars have written volumes trying to deconstruct the presidential mind. How can anyone juggle so many complicated tasks? Is there a particular style of thinking best suited to what’s for most of us an unimaginable challenge? Psychologists, too, are very interested in this question, and more generally in the relationship between power and thinking and judgment. Do those who seek and get power have a unique approach to decision making? Does power shape thought?

A team of researchers in The Netherlands has begun to explore these questions in the laboratory, with some interesting results. Psychologist Pamela Smith and her colleagues at Radboud University Nijmegen suspected that the powerful do indeed think differently—that they think more abstractly, rapidly distilling the essence of a problem rather than analyzing every minute detail. They didn’t need to study actual presidents. The fact is we all exert power at different times in our lives, and we’re all occasionally at the mercy of people more powerful than we are. What Smith did was “prime” these deep-seated feelings of power (and powerlessness) in ordinary people.

They recruited a large group of volunteers and had some of them recall a specific time when they had been called upon to exert power over someone else. Others recalled a time when someone had wielded power over them. Then they gave all the volunteers a complicated life problem to solve. For example, in one experiment they asked them to consider the purchase of four different cars, each varying on 12 different traits, some good and some bad. These problems did have a “correct” solution—that is, one of the four cars had the most positives and the fewest negatives, although the optimal choice was not obvious. There was also a worst choice.

Previous research has shown that most people can solve complex problems better if they engage their unconscious mind, rather than try to deliberately examine and weigh each factor. The conscious mind simply has too little analytic capacity to crunch every possibility, and attempts to do so bog the mind down in detail. Psychologists test this in the lab by distracting some people while they are solving a problem, and then comparing them to others who try to work it out painstakingly. Those who are distracted—the unconscious thinkers—almost always do better, presumably because they distill the gist of the problem.

So Smith did this with her volunteers. Both the “powerful” and the “powerless” volunteers made a choice from the four cars available. But some spent four minutes reasoning the dilemma through the old-fashioned way, while others were distracted with a word puzzle. The findings, reported in the December issue of the journal Psychological Science, were intriguing. As expected, the powerless participants did better when they let their unconscious minds take over, but the powerful participants performed equally well regardless of whether their unconscious or their conscious mind was in gear. That is, powerful people’s routine, conscious deliberation is very much like the unconscious processing of the rest of us—more abstract and, well, better.

That’s got to come in handy in the Oval Office. Of course, making fewer reasoning errors is just one attribute of a good leader, and it has nothing to do with morality or compassion or good sense. Those qualities are measured differently.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit the “We’re Only Human” blog at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 11:41 AM


At 9:27 PM , Blogger P M Prescott said...

Nice new look. I'll keep my political comments out of it.

At 12:55 AM , Blogger Gabriel said...

I read an interesting thing about Obama - he told a friend before he went to Harvard that he was going there "because he needed to learn how powerful people think."

But I guess I wonder - we might engage our conscious brains to study, or problem solve, or memorize, for instance, but we don't really have control over which of those things we learn will pop back up, say, five years or so down the year. That's the province of the unconscious mind. So doesn't it seem like most of us just kind of wade into a fog with our conscious minds, learn what we think we can and hope that our subconscious minds will construct some useful compilation or narrative of it? I presume that's the largest difference between an Ivy League school and another fine university, for instance - surrounding one's self in a finer grade of fog?
Did this make sense to anyone else, or am I tired?