Honey, I shrunk the president
Dear President Bush:
As a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, I sympathize with your pique toward that pesky reporter who tried to analyze your body language at a news conference this month, A National Intelligence Estimate had just reported that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The reporter said that “you seem somehow dispirited” by the news, and he then asked you if you were troubled that the NIE, combined with the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, created a credibility gap between you and the American people.
You were right to dismiss him by saying that you felt “spirited,” and that “kind of Psychology 101 ain’t working.”
I agree, it ain’t.
But it could! I know how busy you are, so I have shrunk my semester-long Psychology 101 course down to six easy lessons, ready to apply to our struggle with Iran.
Week 1: The brain. Without a brain, thinking would be much harder, but sometimes having a brain makes thinking hard too. The brain works by pattern matching, not logic, and if your brain seizes on the wrong pattern (Islam=fascism), it can be quite stubborn in letting go. Try out other patterns (terrorists=international criminals) that point to different foreign policy responses.
Week 2: Behaviorism. Animals learn best by the rapid application of reward and punishment. Kudos for using sanctions to change Iranian behavior, but don’t ignore those sneaky “social learning” effects. Unlike animals, people also learn from watching others get rewarded and punished. When you took it easy on North Korea, which had weapons of mass destruction, and attacked Iraq, which did not, you taught evildoers everywhere the value of joining the nuclear family.
Week 3: Cognitive psychology. The philosopher David Hume warned us long ago that “reason is the servant of the passions,” and now we know how passion rules. When we want to reach a particular conclusion, we search only for evidence that supports the conclusion. When we find some evidence, any evidence, we stop thinking. We don’t lift a finger to seek out disconfirming evidence. So be sure before your next big foreign policy gamble that you consult some experts who don’t share your hopes and values.
Week 4: Developmental psychology. Kids say the darnedest things, many of which are related to their egocentrism. They see the world from their own position, and until the age of 6 or so they don’t understand that people who stand in a different place see different things. So don’t send a 5-year-old off to do a 7-year-old’s job. Be sure that our diplomats listen to others and seek out solutions that are mutually beneficial. Tell John Bolton’s successors at the United Nations to “do carrots” now and then.
Week 5: Social psychology. There is often a “diffusion of responsibility” such that the more people there are who could help in a crisis, the less likely anyone will act. You certainly didn’t let that happen with Iraq or Iran. But watch out for “reactance,” the anger people feel at being told what to do. Alpha-male chimpanzees, Mafia bosses and presidents of Harvard quickly find everyone else ganging up on them when they don’t treat their associates with respect. Do something now and then to give at least the appearance that we care about our allies and don’t think of ourselves as being above the law. Ratify some of those treaties the Europeans are always whining about.
Week 6: Clinical psychology. A recent Gallup Poll showed that Republicans report better mental health than Democrats, and that’s one poll result you can be proud of. You don’t have delusions of grandeur because you really are the president. And you can’t be accused of paranoia because most of the world really does hate us.
So don’t worry, you are a normal, mentally healthy human being with all the normal cognitive and emotional limitations. And if you let Psychology 101 start working for you, rather than against you, you might even achieve a success or two in your final year in office.
Jonathan Haidt is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.”