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Thinking Like A President (Association for Psychological Science)

imageFive months after his election and 2 months after Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th US President, the Association for Psychological Science website invites us to take another look at a post titled Thinking Like A President that was written by Wray Herbert [1. Wray Herbert has been writing about psychology and human behavior for over 25 years. He is the psychology editor for Science News, editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, and science and medicine editor at US News & World Report. He is a fellow at the Carter Center for Mental Health Journalism, and currently writes the “We’re Only Human . . .” blog] for their “We’re Only Human” blog.

Herbert asks the following questions:

Presidential scholars have written volumes trying to deconstruct the presidential mind. How can anyone juggle so many complicated tasks? Is there a particular style of thinking best suited to what’s for most of us an unimaginable challenge? Psychologists, too, are very interested in this question, and more generally in the relationship between power and thinking and judgment. Do those who seek and get power have a unique approach to decision making? Does power shape thought?

Herbert introduces us to the research of psychologist Pamela Smith and her colleagues at Radboud University Nijmegen who have been engaged in the study of power and thinking and have come to conclusion that “the powerful think more abstractly, rapidly distilling the essence of a problem rather than analyzing every minute detail.”

Herbert writes:

Previous research has shown that most people can solve complex problems better if they engage their unconscious mind, rather than try to deliberately examine and weigh each factor. The conscious mind simply has too little analytic capacity to crunch every possibility, and attempts to do so bog the mind down in detail. Psychologists test this in the lab by distracting some people while they are solving a problem, and then comparing them to others who try to work it out painstakingly. Those who are distracted—the unconscious thinkers—almost always do better, presumably because they distill the gist of the problem.

Dr. Smith and her colleagues set up some interesting experiments recruiting volunteers for 2 groups with one asked to recall a time when they exercised power (powerful) and the other asked to recall a time when someone else exercised power over them (powerless). Each group was then required to solve a complex life problem.

So Smith did this with her volunteers. Both the “powerful” and the “powerless” volunteers made a choice from the four cars available. But some spent four minutes reasoning the dilemma through the old-fashioned way, while others were distracted with a word puzzle. The findings, reported in the December issue of the journal Psychological Science, were intriguing. As expected, the powerless participants did better when they let their unconscious minds take over, but the powerful participants performed equally well regardless of whether their unconscious or their conscious mind was in gear. That is, powerful people’s routine, conscious deliberation is very much like the unconscious processing of the rest of us—more abstract and, well, better.

Herbert concludes:

That’s got to come in handy in the Oval Office. Of course, making fewer reasoning errors is just one attribute of a good leader, and it has nothing to do with morality or compassion or good sense. Those qualities are measured differently.

Dr. Smith’s faculty webpage has a long list of interesting downloadable journal articles on the topic of power and thinking including:

  • Nonconscious effects of power on basic approach and avoidance tendencies. Social Cognition, 26, 1-24. PDF (251 Kb) Smith, P. K., & Bargh, J. A. (2008).
  • Powerful people make good decisions even when they consciously think. Psychological Science, 19,1258-1259. PDF (75 Kb) Smith, P. K., Dijksterhuis, A., & Wigboldus, D. H. J. (2008).
  • Lacking power impairs executive functions. Psychological Science, 19, 441-447. PDF (95 Kb) Smith, P. K., Jostmann, N. B., Galinsky, A. D., & van Dijk, W. W. (2008).
  • Abstract thinking increases one’s sense of power. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 378-385. PDF (166 Kb) Smith, P. K., Wigboldus, D. H. J., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2008).
  • You focus on the forest when you’re in charge of the trees: Power priming and abstract information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 578-596. PDF (172 Kb) Smith, P. K., & Trope, Y. (2006).

About the author

Peter A. Mello, Founder/Editor Founder of Weekly Leader and Sea-Fever Consulting, LLC, a leadership development and strategic communications consultancy. Previously, CEO of an international nonprofit organization and COO of a national insurance/risk management services firm. Peter has been leading people and managing organizations for over 30 years, writes a leadership column for MarineNews magazine and blogs about maritime culture at Sea-Fever. Follow him on Twitter.

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