My candidate, myself

Even when faced with new facts and insights, most voters don't change their minds about their favorite candidates. A neurologist explains how they might.

Topics: 2008 Elections, Mind Reader, Psychology

“Let’s make sure that there is certainty during uncertain times” — George W. Bush, 2008

Last week, I jokingly asked a health club acquaintance whether he would change his mind about his choice for president if presented with sufficient facts that contradicted his present beliefs. He responded with utter confidence. “Absolutely not,” he said. “No new facts will change my mind because I know that these facts are correct.”

I was floored. In his brief rebuttal, he blindly demonstrated overconfidence in his own ideas and the inability to consider how new facts might alter a presently cherished opinion. Worse, he seemed unaware of how irrational his response might appear to others. It’s clear, I thought, that carefully constructed arguments and presentation of irrefutable evidence will not change this man’s mind.

In the current presidential election, a major percentage of voters are already committed to “their candidate”; new arguments and evidence fall on deaf ears. And yet, if we, as a country, truly want change, we must be open-minded, flexible and willing to revise our opinions when new evidence warrants it. Most important, we must be able to recognize and acknowledge when we are wrong.

Unfortunately, cognitive science offers some fairly sobering observations about our ability to judge ourselves and others.

Perhaps the single academic study most germane to the present election is the 1999 psychology paper by David Dunning and Justin Kruger, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” The two Cornell psychologists began with the following assumptions.

  • Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
  • Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
  • Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.

To put their theories to the test, the psychologists asked a group of Cornell undergraduates to undergo a series of self-assessments, including tests of logical reasoning taken from a Law School Admissions Test preparation guide. Prior to being shown their test scores, the subjects were asked to estimate how they thought they would fare in comparison with the others taking the tests.

On average, participants placed themselves in the 66th percentile, revealing that most of us tend to overestimate our skills somewhat. But those in the bottom 25 percent consistently overestimated their ability to the greatest extent. For example, in the logical reasoning section, individuals who scored in the 12th percentile believed that their general reasoning abilities fell at the 68th percentile, and that their overall scores would be in the 62nd percentile. The authors point out that the problem was not primarily underestimating how others had done; those in the bottom quartile overestimated the number of their correct answers by nearly 50 percent. Similarly, after seeing the answers of the best performers — those in the top quartile — those in the bottom quartile continued to believe that they had performed well.

The article’s conclusion should be posted as a caveat under every political speech of those seeking office. And it should serve as the epitaph for the Bush administration: “People who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact. That is, the same incompetence that leads them to make wrong choices also deprives them of the savvy necessary to recognize competence, be it their own or anyone else’s.”

The converse also bears repeating. Despite the fact that students in the top quartile fairly accurately estimated how well they did, they also tended to overestimate the performance of others. In short, smart people tend to believe that everyone else “gets it.” Incompetent people display both an increasing tendency to overestimate their cognitive abilities and a belief that they are smarter than the majority of those demonstrably sharper.

Closely allied with this unshakable self-confidence in one’s decisions is a second separate aspect of meta-cognition, the feeling of being right. As I have pointed out in my recent book, “On Being Certain,” feelings of conviction, certainty and other similar states of “knowing what we know” may feel like logical conclusions, but are in fact involuntary mental sensations that function independently of reason. At their most extreme, these are the spontaneous “aha” or “Eureka” sensations that tell you that you have made a major discovery. Lesser forms include gut feelings, hunches and vague intuitions of knowing something, as well as the standard “yes, that’s right” feeling that you get when you solve a problem.

The evidence is substantial that these feelings do not correlate with the accuracy or quality of the thought. Indeed, these feelings can occur in the absence of any specific thought, such as with electrical and chemical brain stimulation. They can also occur spontaneously during so-called mystical or spiritual epiphanies in which the affected person senses an immediate “understanding of the meaning or purpose of the universe.” William James described this phenomenon as “felt knowledge.”

Feelings of absolute certainty and utter conviction are not rational deliberate conclusions; they are involuntary mental sensations generated by the brain. Like other powerful mental states such as love, anger and fear, they are extraordinarily difficult to dislodge through rational arguments. Just as it’s nearly impossible to reason with someone who’s enraged and combative, refuting or diminishing one’s sense of certainty is extraordinarily difficult. Certainty is neither created by nor dispelled by reason.

Similarly, without access to objective evidence, we are terrible at determining whether a candidate is telling us the truth. Most large-scale psychological studies suggest that the average person is incapable of accurately predicting whether someone is lying. In most studies, our abilities to make such predictions, based on facial expressions and body language, are no greater than by chance alone — hardly a recommendation for choosing a presidential candidate based upon a gut feeling that he or she is honest.

Worse, our ability to assess political candidates is particularly questionable when we have any strong feeling about them. An oft-quoted fMRI study by Emory psychologist Drew Westen illustrates how little conscious reason is involved in political decision-making.

Westen asked staunch party members from both sides to evaluate negative (defamatory) information about their 2004 presidential choice. Areas of the brain (prefrontal cortex) normally engaged during reasoning failed to show increased activation. Instead, the limbic system — the center for emotional processing — lit up dramatically. According to Westen, both Republicans and Democrats “reached totally biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted” (cognitive dissonance).

In other words, we are as bad at judging ourselves as we are at judging others. Most cognitive scientists now believe that the majority of our thoughts originate in the areas of the brain inaccessible to conscious introspection. These beginnings of thoughts arrive in consciousness already colored with inherent bias. No two people see the world alike. Each of our perceptions is filtered through our genetic predispositions, inherent biologic differences and idiosyncratic life experiences. Your red is not my red. These differences extend to the very building blocks of thoughts; each of us will look at any given question from his own predispositions. Thinking may be as idiosyncratic as fingerprints.

As a result, we are all plagued by bias, self-deceit and poor character judgment. So, is there a better approach, a better methodology for assessing important personal qualities when the chips are down? After all, when that 3 a.m. emergency call comes, we won’t care about a president’s charm, church, oratorical abilities, cuteness of children, whether he or she wears designer glasses, is the world’s greatest war hero, has an Arabic-sounding middle name or “feels like one of us.”

Would we choose a neurosurgeon for those reasons? I would choose a neurosurgeon for his or her dexterity and decision-making. So I want a president aware of how his mind works, as well as what he suspects are his inborn biases and intellectual limitations. Ironically, the acknowledgment of intellectual limitations may be the best evidence for superior decision-making skills. Contrary to George Bush’s belief, we do not want certainty in the White House. We want flexibility and an acknowledgment that certainty is often a sign of ignorance.

Unfortunately, sound bites, TV interviews and presidential debates often fail to reveal the candidates’ real thought processes — how each would approach a new or complex problem for which he or she doesn’t already have a pat answer.

Ideally, I would like to put the candidates through a series of tests similar to those given to the Cornell undergraduates. The candidates would be given questions, including a variety of “thought experiments” for which they could not be prepared in advance. Then we could see their thought processes in action. We would have a better idea of how they reasoned and whether they rely on gut feelings and instincts. We could see their ability to step back from their own answers to judge their quality and accuracy.

As many of the most pressing issues of the day have a large science component, I would particularly want to focus on each candidate’s intellectual grasp of scientific method, from choosing and evaluating evidence to seeing how they would respond to a well-constructed contrary line of reasoning. I would want them to answer difficult, complex questions about aspects of science such as global warming, stem-cell research or alternative energy sources for which they may not have adequate knowledge. I want to see how the candidates respond when stumped. Are they evasive, flustered or straightforward in admitting what they don’t know or understand? Equally important, I would like to see how each responds when presented with evidence that his answers are wrong. Is he or she capable of admitting to having made an error? Would he or she be flexible enough to change an opinion?

And, when answers seem to conflict with traditional reasoning and scientific method, I would want the candidate to explain why he or she continues to hold such beliefs. For example, give me a reason-based, scientific explanation of speaking in tongues, or how one can objectively determine that one has “heard the voice of God,” or that the Earth is 7,000 years old. This is not meant as a challenge to one’s faith — each of us is entitled to our beliefs. But as a public servant, each candidate has the obligation to explain how non-scientific beliefs are justified. If a candidate insists on a faith-based decision, such as “knowing” that the Earth is only as old as written in the Bible, I want to hear how that is justified in the face of contrary evidence.

Each of the candidates has repeatedly emphasized that this is a pivotal moment in American history. They are all experienced in interviewing potential co-workers, running partners and job applicants. I doubt that they would stop at allowing an applicant to simply recite his qualifications. So the candidates should be willing, even eager to submit to the most difficult personal interrogations themselves. After all, this is an opportunity to demonstrate their intellectual prowess and skills with decision-making. Conversely, no candidate should be allowed to retreat into canned speeches or evasive comments.

Many of the failures of post-9/11 American policy were caused by or aggravated by the inability of our president to recognize his intellectual limitations (including his choice of advisors), keep an open mind, evaluate evidence such as the presence or absence of weapons of mass destruction, and listen to all sides of a complex issue. Perhaps this could have been avoided if Bush had been forced to publicly answer serious multifaceted questions prior to the election. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

The next six weeks are our only chance to elect the most qualified candidate. This is not a time for interviewer politeness and gentle repartee that sidesteps controversial or delicate issues. It is not enough to hear each candidate regurgitate memorized and rehearsed policy statements; we must know what they will do and how they will act in situations for which they have not been adequately prepared. Leadership is measured by the best decisions during the worst times.

Robert Burton, M.D., is the former chief of neurology at Mount Zion-UCSF Hospital and the author of "On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not." His column, "Mind Reader," appears regularly in Salon.

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