The Science of Good Presidential Decision Making

John McCain and Barack Obama “represent distinct cognitive styles” and have “starkly different approaches to decision-making,” Jonah Lehrer writes for the Boston Globe. According to Lehrer, the contrast between the two candidates makes the 2008 election not just an assessment of who’s right on the issues, but “a referendum on the best mode of thinking.” Lehrer cites psychological research on how good decisions are made to evaluate the strengths of McCain and Obama’s cognitive styles. Some studies imply that gut instincts, which McCain often relies on, are a great asset in complicated decision making. Others contend that good judgment is more likely to spring from active introspection, which is more Obama’s style.

Either approach, according to Lehrer, “is inherently flawed” as an absolute methodology. It’s important for decision makers to “constantly reflect on their own thought process” and to enlist advisers that will challenge their decisions. Psychologist Philip Tetlock tells Lehrer, “We should see self-awareness and even self-doubt as a sign of strength, not as a sign of weakness.” That may be true, but in a presidential campaign, self-doubt is often attacked as unpresidential.

“The ideal president,” Lehrer writes, “won’t conform to the current cliches of presidential decision-making. He’ll exude confidence in public, but behind the scenes he’ll accept his fallibility and seek out those who disagree with him. He won’t fixate on rational deliberation – or worship the power of his intuition. The brain is not a hammer, and not every problem is a nail.”

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