The Frontal Cortex

Self-Awareness and Obama

From the fanastic series of just-released Newsweek articles on the presidential campaign:

Obama was something unusual in a politician: genuinely self-aware. In late May 2007, he had stumbled through a couple of early debates and was feeling uncertain about what he called his “uneven” performance. “Part of it is psychological,” he told his aides. “I’m still wrapping my head around doing this in a way that I think the other candidates just aren’t. There’s a certain ambivalence in my character that I like about myself. It’s part of what makes me a good writer, you know? It’s not necessarily useful in a presidential campaign.”

That self-aware ambivalence is why I love the guy. Here’s what I wrote a few weeks ago in the Globe:

The most crucial decision-making 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.”


  1. #1 Becca
    November 6, 2008

    I don’t know if this is true, but I enjoy introspection and it’s a serious habit.

    Often, when I try to articulate my metacognition to others (*cough*PIs*cough*) they get that glazed look. Heck, sometimes I get that glazed look when others try to communicate their metacognition to me. I don’t know that metacognition exactly lends itself to clear, linear, verbal, easy-to-follow expression- or maybe I and others are sometimes just really bad at it!
    Plus, there is the downside that sometimes people take your doubt in yourself the wrong way. I grok the line about the campaigning.
    But it makes me feel a little more cheerful to know that something I do anyway, something that I don’t know if I can help doing, might actually be useful.

    Is my rationalization useful (“just because a rationalization is useful doesn’t mean it isn’t true!”)? Why do I want to believe something?

    The rationalization for introspection, that it leads to good judgement, is useful to me, because it makes a behavior I enjoy/can’t help seem beneficial. So I’ll be predisposed to believe it. However, it might just be intrinsically true as well.

    I think that was meta^2.

    Anyway, I think I understand what you’re saying. Feeling like I have a common value in introspection is one reason I see Obama as human. Hey, last night on the Daily Show I think Jon Stewart just did this (did anyone else see him talking about going outside on a nice, 60ish fall day and the right goes “It’s SNOWING!” and he’s all WTF?). I think he does this kind of introspection too!

  2. #2 Luna_the_cat
    November 6, 2008

    This is what Terry Pratchett has referred to as “Second Thoughts” — the thoughts that watch your first thoughts. And some people have Third Thoughts, which can point out even more useful things about the first and second thoughts, if you are listening carefully.

  3. #3 David
    November 6, 2008

    That’s a tremendous insight about Obama — I’d have guessed this about him but to have it in quotes, that’s just great. I personally think the study of metacognition is going to be the overarching, leading edge area of psychological research for the up and coming decade, and perhaps beyond. Great insights here as usual.

  4. #4 Anibal
    November 7, 2008

    I would not like to break the enthusiasm on metacognition (the ability to think about thinking)it is really a collection of abilities that made what humans are, but in a more philosophical point of view (ultimate inquiry) about this issue, there is some notes of caution about the prospect of introspection of ones own mental states (Schwitzgebel 2008)

  5. #5 Rash
    November 7, 2008

    I like the fact that his personality is still developing and adapting, with a bedrock of positive core characteristics already there.

  6. #6 Bond investor
    November 7, 2008

    Jonah, have you actually *read* all of Philip Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment? You missed the whole point of the book, and of Obama’s comment in the Newsweek article. Three contentions on Tetlock, and then I apply to Obama:

    1. Tetlock’s research proves that foxes (crafty strategists willing to abandon/change views) are better forecasters than hedgehogs (intelligent but stubborn forecasters with “one big idea”). Being a good forecaster would be a valuable asset as a politician, particularly in foreign policy brinksmanship.

    2. Tetlock shows that forecasting accuracy is lower the more famous and oft-quoted a forecaster is.

    3. Tetlock shows that hedgehogs often defend their poor forecasting record by claiming they “made the right mistake” — crying wolf or advocating ideas to avoid the worst-case scenario at the expense of even a base-case outcome.

    Apply these three to the Presidency and Obama:

    1. Obama may be willing to change his views and strategies (be a fox), but I would contend that most of his supporters are hedgehogs: they will see any affirmation that some part of the Bush status quo has been, is, and will be a good idea as treasonous to the voters.

    2. How much more in the spotlight could someone be than to be President? Reputational risk is what made the famous hedgehogs less accurate. So if Obama is Clintonesque is governing by polls/reputation (an anti-Bush), his policies will be failures when dealing with opponents that alter their strategies. Hedgehog policies may be successful against amorphous opponents like the economy or education reform, where no small group can recognize strategies and react. But against Ahmedinejad/Khameini, Chavez, Kim Jong-Il, Medvedev/Putin or Hu Jintao, Obama will be hopelessly outmaneuvered if he engages in public flights of self-doubt.

    3. Defending a policy as having “made the right mistake” is the mother’s milk of politics. We want to “eradicate drug use” instead of spend to get the biggest bang for our buck. We want to reduce arsenic levels in drinking water from one part per trillion to one part per quadrillion, leaving us with no money to spend on MRSA or avian flu prevention projects.

    Yes, I am a McCain/Palin voter, so it probably doesn’t matter much what I think. Since both Obama and McCain ignored Medicare and Social Security in the campaign, shame on both. But the economic and non-discretionary spending paths are already locked in for political failure. Obama will be a one-term president, to be succeeded by a Palin/Jindal administration. Palin will become Senator from Alaska, after Stevens steps down, Palin steps down, and gets her (Lt.) Gov Sean Parnell to nominate her to the position. A female/South Asian ticket equalizes any remaining racial cards to play in the campaign.

  7. #7 jope
    November 8, 2008

    I’m not convinced that Obama’s self-aware ambivalence is at all unique or even unusual, so much as his willingness as a politician to cop to it openly.

    Also: Unable to find an Obama pic appropriately captioned “totally meta”. So sad! Internets, please to assist.

  8. #8 Fertanish
    November 8, 2008

    When I think back through the events of the past 9 months or so, with all the tension that surrounded the primaries and general election, the only thing that truly made me mad was when the word of Edwards’ affair was made public.

    He was out of the race already, but I took it as a slight to the entire Democrat party; he simply didn’t care what impact this news would have on him, his running mates, or the public. Consider if he actually would have won the nomination; the release of this news could have easily sunk his campaign. The news itself was a dangerous throwback to the negativity that surrounded Bill Clinton in his last days and could have had a lasting, damaging stereotype against any Democratic campaign.

    Worst of all, it seems it was never a question of “if” the affair would be made public, but “when.” There was virtually no chance the events wouldn’t have been made public. Edwards simply chose to ignore the inevitable and carried forward for his own selfish goals.

    I use this as an example of where I think Obama has true intelligence: he appears to have a firm understanding that every action has a consequence. He addresses potential negative problems before they can be used against him and he seems to have solid judgment to not do things that could hinder his future.

    I think this falls a bit into the mentioned idea of self-awareness. Granted, he could just be a genuinely good person who would never put himself into a potential bad situation based on his own morality. But, I think he also understands the bigger picture and can foresee what messes to not step in. Choosing to not get involved in the Congressional deliberations over the financial bailouts was a significant turning point in the race versus McCain. True, he was strongly advised by most Democrats to stay away, but trusting the advice and doing something nearly opposite of his opponent couldn’t have been easy.

    And, of course, there were many fights McCain couldn’t bait him into as well over the past couple months.

    Vision, awareness, intelligence…he’s a very compelling character. I hope he can maintain these traits throughout his presidency.

  9. #9 sparky
    November 13, 2008

    my brain sparked when reading bond investor’s comment on nov 7 11:07pm. i hope to read more by bond investor.

  10. #10 Don Salmon
    October 10, 2010

    Commenter #4 mentioned (Eric) Schwitzgebel. Eric’s comments on introspection are so bizarre and so widely off the mark, the only possible explanation I can see is that he is a philosopher who has no idea what introspection is actually about. If you are able to maintain samata (witnessing, or simple mindfulness – that is, to remain aware of arising and passing away of thoughts, feelings and sensations without identification) for more than a few minutes, try reading his writings while in that state. It will be much easier to spot the logical errors this way.

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