A new psychology study hit the press today, right in time to provide perspective on tonight's State of the Union address. The study, published in the journal Political Psychology, analyzed the level of complexity of these speeches from 41 different U.S. presidents going all the way back to George Washington. The speeches become, well – dumb and dumber – as the President's number of years in office grow. Which means that tonight's address, the Academy Awards for would-be actors too ugly to make it in Hollywood, will be perfect if you like ingesting idiocy packaged as important information. After all, he's already as dumb as they come, right?
I perused the more than 30 page manuscript, by Felix Thoemmes of Arizona State University and Lucian Conway of the University of Montana. It was interesting.
Integrative complexity can roughly be considered an ability to:
* distinguish & acknowledge other points of view
* synthesize or integrate divergent points
* tolerate ambiguity
As it turns out, this integrative complexity is an old idea. It comes from a classic, textbook social psychology concept in Kelley's personal construct theory. Integrative complexity can be considered a personality trait - roughly to what extent a person tends to engage in higher-order cognition – the kind of critical thinking I and my fellow colleagues want our college students to display. And at least – for crying out loud - the leader of the United States!
The Political Psychology study, Integrative Complexity of 41 U.S. Presidents, found that in the final year of office, the level of complexity of presidential speeches plummeted.
You know what's the most interesting?
American presidents who showed a sharper decline in complexity were more likely to be re-elected.
Now, it's not that Presidents become more dumb in office, or that their speech writers do. After all, personality doesn't change. That's the whole point; personality is stable. It's not that the stress of the job catches up with them, as Conway conjectured. Rather – presidents act. They deliver the lines their speech writers and staff feed them. Like other experienced actors, they ad lib. I think they know exactly how to "sell" their agenda to a populace reluctant to think critically.
“Low complexity wins elections,” Conway reiterated in an interview. “People like simple answers, and someone saying, ‘I don’t have all the answers and here are five possibilities’ is a hard sell compared to someone who says, ‘I have a plan and it is going to work and my opponent is completely wrong.’ ”
One person interviewed about the study, Matthew Scully, was skeptical of the author's conclusion. He said the findings "largely reflect that by the president’s fourth year in office, many issues on his agenda may have already become law or been shot down. Either way, presidents have a smaller — and simpler — platter of issues at that point." It should not come as a surprise that he was one of Bush’s speechwriters.
His point may hold some water when considering one or two periods during the history of the United States, but I don't buy it. The world doesn't become a simpler, tidier place with each U.S. President who holds office. They just are not that powerful, otherwise the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, the Koreas, Malaysia, Colombia, Nicaragua, and our county's relationship with the Mexican border would all be better by now. Yet, the world is still in shambles. Even France has more problems now. Sorry, Scully, your X-Files namesake may have been hot, but your explanation leaves me a little cold.
Be that as it may, what do we make of the finding that presidents with more simplistic views get re-elected?
When asked, Conway cited his preliminary analysis of Democratic presidential primary debates in 2004. Candidates who offered complex arguments were rated less popular in subsequent public opinion polls than those who offered simplistic ones. Another researcher, Peter Suedfeld of the University of British Columbia, found a similar pattern among revolutionaries – those people who changed history. Suedfeld analyzed rebellious leaders from George Washington to Fidel Castro and found the common ingredient for their success was espousing simple ideas. Those who offered complex ideas to start may have simply failed to inspire followers. But why?
I propose that people 'jump on the bandwagon' of leaders who ignite their passion, who make them feel rather than think. We are swayed by a charismatic person, a charming actor who makes us feel good. Thinking is hard work. Requiring that of listeners means speakers can't reach their hearts. It takes a gifted orator to make people think and simultaneously feel good. Those types don't come along very often.
All of this talk of politics and revolutionary changes makes me wonder where people like Dennis Kucinich and the young rabble-rouser from Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr, fit in.
So the next time you hear the president or any other leader offer simplistic statements designed to make you feel good and not think, remember – they are just doing what works.
As one AP writer put it, "The disturbing question is not why politicians pander, but why pandering works — and for that we need to look in the mirror."