In the most recent debate among Presidential hopefuls in the
Democratic Party, there was an exchange regarding the so-called
“ticking bomb” question. The question itself, and the way it
was handled, reveals shortcomings in the way we evaluate our candidates.
TIM RUSSERT: I want to move to another subject, and this involves a
comment that a guest on Meet the Press made, and I want to read it as
follows: “Imagine the following scenario. We get lucky. We
get the number three guy in al-Qaeda. We know there’s a big
bomb going off in America in three days, and we know this guy knows
where it is. Don’t we have the right and responsibility to
beat it out of him? You could set up a law where the president could
make a finding or could guarantee a pardon.”
You can read a partial transcript and watch the video at Democracy
I think it is a dumb question. The responses tell you
nothing, no matter how the candidate answers. The fact is,
people in general are not very good at anticipating their own behavior
in response to hypothetical situations. While they may
honestly say what they think they would do, they
cannot say what they actually would do.
This is particularly true in situations that are highly
charged emotionally, and when there an element of time pressure.
Besides, who cares what a candidate would do in that
situation? Are we really going to vote for someone on the
basis of a response to an incredibly unlikely scenario?
No, we are not. But perhaps the exercise has some peripheral
Listening to the responses of the candidates, it is clear that if there
is any useful information in their responses, the value is not in the
literal answer to the question. The value comes from what the
candidates reveal about their values and their problem-solving ability.
Asking people questions about their values tends to be a waste of time,
because there is no way of assessing how well the answer corresponds to
the person’s behavior. In order to how a person’s value
affect their behavior, you have to watch their behavior.
Still, if there is a good correlation between what someone
says about their values, and what they do, it tells you a little bit
about them. But most of what you learn comes from watching
what they do, not listening to what they say.
Plus, people cannot tell you what their values really are, unless they
actually know what their values are. Often, that is not the
case. There are few people who are both
sufficiently narcissistic to run for President, and
sufficiently insightful to know what their own values are.
What is more valuable, then, is to ask candidates directly about how
they solve problems. That is really what you want to know,
and that is really what we pay them to do, once elected. We
pay them to solve problems.
So why not just ask them directly about how they solve problems, since
that is what we really want to know?
So let’s not ask what the candidate would do in a hypothetical
situation. What would be more interesting, and more useful,
would be to ask these questions: Here is the situation (explain
hypothetical situation). From you point of view, what
problems do you think this situation would present? How would
you go about solving those problems?
It is always more informative to find out how
people think, rather that what they think.