It’s Not Just the President’s Psychology that Should Give Us Pause, It’s the Whole Bias of Human Psychology toward Believing that We Are “The Decider”

“Bush Derangement Syndrome” (BDS) is the derisive way that Washington Post’s op-ed columnist Charles Krauthammer refers to psychologically oriented analyses of George W. Bush’s brand of presidential decision-making. (The Bush family itself styles such analysis as “psychobabble.”)

While it’s no secret that I generally find this President’s mental performance ranking somewhere between the ludicrous and the phantasmagorical, I’ve not given much ”ink” to BDS-type analyses to now.

But the presidential behaviors that have been the focus of such studies show no signs of improving. Deep soul-searching and insightful self-learning are not taking place for the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and aren’t like to. And the costs and the dangers of the psychological dynamics driving The Decider have grown. So it is time. Bring your spelunker’s headlamp because we are going inside the topic of the psyches of leaders.

It is not necessary to read all the studies of the President’s psychology to get the gist of their arguments and observations. Read one, and you’ve pretty much gotten the general drift of them all.

Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President is as good as any. This book was written by Justin Frank, a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at George Washington University Medical Center. The likely reasons for Mr. Bush’s unresolved psychological issues are all there: the absentee father, the authoritarian mother, the likely hyperactivity and dyslexia, the competition between siblings and the need to compete with his father’s yawning successes, the multi-generational poor parenting skills of his family, the lack of unconditional love, the out-sized privileges of his elite slice of society with few, consistent countervailing sources of wise guidance, correction and personal counsel—it’s all there. And so are the likely consequences: his drinking, his bullying and bellicosity, his constant lying, his religiosity and rigidity, his youthful cruelty to playmates, classmates and animals and now to his perceived international enemies. And, of course, his all-consuming sense of incompetence and inadequacy. It’s very troubling to realize that such a troubled youngster grew into such a troubled man who has now led his powerful country and the rest of the world down such a troubled path.

But as I refreshed my memory of all this, rather than a growing anger, I found myself with a certain empathy for this incorrigibly dysfunctional thinker who has visited such unnecessary pain and waste on the people he purports to serve.

As we all do, George W. Bush deserves considerable understanding and sympathy for his psychological shortcomings.

I’ve rarely found myself more moved than when reading of how Mr. Bush learned, at the age of six, that his sister, Robin, 4, was dead. When Robin was diagnosed with leukemia, George’s mother and dad left him in Texas for six months while they sought a cure for Robin in eastern U.S. hospitals. When she died, they didn’t tell young George at first. No one did. He didn’t realize that he no longer had a sister until he ran up to the family car upon his parents’ return to Houston and realized that his sister was not in the back seat. Mr. Bush would recall, “Minutes before I had a little sister, and now I didn’t. Forty-six years later, those moments remain the starkest memory of my childhood….” He didn’t add that he had no time to grieve for his beloved Robin. His mother battled depression and indeed her hair turned prematurely gray after Robin’s death. Son George had nightmares anchored in this, and possibly still does. Mr. Bush says the rest of his childhood was a happy blur, and it may have been. But I doubt it, frankly. I suspect this story is symbolic of more than only the events surrounding one four-year-old’s tragic passing.

Central though it seems to be to the failure of Mr. Bush’s presidency, his personal psychology may be the lesser part of the psychological story about this Administration and its deadly, corrosive, unresolved Iraqi War. The bigger picture is one of those Pogo-like “I have seen the enemy and it is I” issues. This is an argument that Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Price-winning economist and expert on human decision-making, and a colleague made in the January/February issues of Foreign Policy. Each of their points is capable of giving emotionally balanced individuals much to reflect on.

Here are key points that they made, and some of their commentary:

• People are prone to exaggerate their strengths. “[This] optimistic bias makes politicians and generals receptive to advisers who offer highly favorable estimates of the outcomes of war.”

• People don’t consider what others are feeling and facing when they attempt to interpret the other party’s behaviors. “Instead, they attribute the behavior they see to the person’s nature, character or persistent motives.”

• People are equally bad at understanding how they appear to others. “This bias can manifest itself at critical stages in international crises,” such as when the U.S. misjudged how China might interpret the fact that U.S. forces were moving toward China on the Korean Peninsula in that 1950’s era conflict. [Or when Mr. Bush and his advisers misjudged how the Arab world would greet their involvement in Iraq.]

• People are excessively optimistic. “Psychological research has show that a large majority of people believe themselves to be smarter, more attractive, and more talented than average, and they commonly overestimate their future success.”

• People are prone to an “illusion of control.” “They consistently exaggerate the amount of control they have over outcomes that are important to them—even when the outcomes are in fact random or determined by other forces.”

• The optimistic bias and the illusion of control are contagious forces in the run-up to conflict. “Optimistic generals will be found, usually on both sides, before the beginning of every military conflict.”

• People are gloomy when evaluating another side’s concessions. “The very fact that a concession is offered by somebody perceived as hostile undermines the content of the proposal.”

• People have a deep-seated aversion to cutting their losses. This tendency to avoid a certain loss in favor of a potential gain keeps conflicts going longer than they should by other measures. The situation is made worse by “the fact that for the leaders who have led their nation to the brink of defeat, consequences of giving up will usually not be worse if the conflict is prolonged, even if they are worse for the citizens they lead.”

These kinds of predictable decision-making errors—what psychologists call biases—are why “policymakers come to the debate predisposed to believe their hawkish advisers more than the doves,” these experts suggest. And understanding these biases “can at least help ensure that the hawks don’t win more arguments than they should.”

So the problem is not just Mr. Bush’s psychology. The problem is also our human psychology in general. And thus the problem is not going to go away when Mr. Bush leaves office. The problem may never go away. That’s a thought that left me in need of fresh air and a walk in the sunshine after doing this bit of research. And more determined than ever to do what I can to insist that people pay attention to what their brain is doing to what their mind is thinking and deciding.

Purchase Justin Frank’s book here: Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President

For an extensive discussion of the Bush family’s psychology from a “centrist” perspective, go here: George Bush, Father & Son: 18 Psychological Keys

Read Daniel Kahneman’s and Jonathan Renshon’s Foreign Policy article here: Why Hawks Win

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