The Frontal Cortex

Presidential Decision-Making

My latest article in the Boston Globe Ideas section is on presidential decision-making and the virtues of metacognition, or being able to think about thinking:

For the last eight years, America has had a president with an audacious approach to making decisions. “I’m a gut player. I rely on my instincts,” President Bush has said repeatedly. It doesn’t matter if he’s making a decision about invading Iraq, the intentions of a foreign leader, or pushing ahead with Social Security reform: Bush believes in the power of his intuition.

Critics have lampooned this aspect of the Bush presidency. Comedian Stephen Colbert regularly mocks the approach with his invocations of “truthiness,” or facts that are only true according to the gut instinct of the president; Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward writes in his most recent book that “Bush’s instincts are almost his second religion.” While Bush’s supporters see him as unwavering and resolute, these critics describe a president who is reckless and impulsive, willing to ignore any information that contradicts what he’s feeling.

The irony is that the eight years of the Bush administration have coincided with a growing body of scientific research demonstrating the power of human instincts, at least in certain circumstances. In fact, some studies suggest that when confronted with a complex decision – and the decisions of the president are as complex as it gets – people often do best when they rely on their gut feelings, just as Bush does.

However, it has also become clear that listening to your instincts is just a part of making good decisions. The crucial skill, scientists are now saying, is the ability to think about your own thinking, or metacognition, as it is known. Unless people vigilantly reflect on how they are making an important decision, they won’t be able to properly use their instincts, or know when their gut should be ignored. Indeed, according to this emerging new vision of decision-making, the best predictor of good judgment isn’t intuition or experience or intelligence. Rather, it’s the willingness to engage in introspection, to cultivate what Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, calls “the art of self-overhearing.”

To be honest, the scariest part of the Palin interviews of the last few weeks wasn’t her lack of knowledge. Rather, it was her pose of certainty, the way she bragged about not “blinking” or second-guessing her decisions. When it comes decision-making, declarative knowledge is overrated. The most crucial skills are metacognition and an ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance, two psychological traits that are suppressed when certain.


  1. #1 Mozglubov
    October 6, 2008

    Those studies about subconscious decisions, however, have tended to be about decisions that, even when involving a large number of facts, have the vast majority of those facts factored in in an appropriate manner. However, when it comes to something like voting, our gut instinct factors in all sorts of inappropriate aspects as well, such as the physical attractiveness of a candidate. Whether or not Sarah Palin is a pretty lady or Barack Obama is a handsome man should not be part of the issue, but it most certainly is. That is why I worry about the fact that most people tend to make decisions with their gut rather than based on thinking that is as rational as possible. I have a similar problem with the President making decisions based on gut instinct. Your subconscious may be able to deal with vast quantities of information, but that information is not always relevant nor appropriately weighted.

  2. #2 DrA
    October 6, 2008

    The scariest aspect of elections is how many people are making decisions based upon their gut reaction to the candidates and their basic “street smarts”. However it’s also obvious how easily modern media makes it to influence such people. The basic joe-six-pack gets hosed over and over again and doesn’t realize it.

  3. #3 Nebularry
    October 6, 2008

    Fascinating stuff and I thank you for your post. What scares me is that it seems as though neither George Bush, John McCain nor Sarah Palin is thinking at all thus making it impossible for them to “think about thinking”. I lose sleep when I think about that!

  4. #4 David
    October 6, 2008

    I think you’ve put your finger on one of the most important, perhaps the most important, reason why this election is of critical importance.

  5. #5 G W Bush
    October 6, 2008

    That Saddam guy gives me indigestion.

  6. #6 Mojave66
    October 9, 2008

    Isn’t there a positive correlation between knowledge of a subject and being able to use your “guts” in an intuitive way? In other words, if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, your “guts” don’t give you any insight. If you do know what the hell you’re doing, your “guts” give you an intuitive sense of the problem. Evelyn Fox Keller’s biography of Barbara McClintock explores this phenomena.

  7. #7 Jim
    October 15, 2008

    Excellent article! Without the desire or ability to engage in any metacognitive reflection, our current President handicaps himself by being unaware of what he truly knows or doesn’t know. One of my favorite terms in Educational Psychology is “secondary ignorance”… not knowing that you do not know. When secondary ignorance is mixed with zealous passion and conviction, the outcome, regardless of intention, is outright dangerous. One of the most telling differences between G.W. and G.H. Bush is that G.H. understood that he didn’t know enough about the culture of the Middle East to be able to accurately predict the outcome of attacking Iraq. I believe great leaders surround themselves with others who challenge their own beliefs, continuously forcing them reflect upon and (heaven forbid!) occasionally change their minds when evidence or stronger logic prevails. I hope our next President has the integrity and sense to understand the importance of self-reflection and intellectual challenge.

  8. #8 deniz iskele
    March 3, 2009

    thank much

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