Oh yeah, he’s dead serious.
Obama, lost in thought — Dana Milbank/WaPo
Seeking a template to understand the enigmatic president, I consulted three leading academics in the fields of psychology and behavior. With their help, I put Obama on the couch and came away with a reasonably coherent diagnosis: There’s too much going on in the poor guy’s head.
“What distinguishes Obama particularly is the depth and carefulness of his thinking, which renders him somewhat unfit for politics,” said Jonathan Haidt, a professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia. “He is a brilliant social and political analyst, which makes it harder for him to play hardball or to bluff.”
Obama’s strengths and weaknesses come from his high degree of “integrative complexity” — his ability to keep multiple variables and trade-offs in mind simultaneously. The integratively simple thinker — say, George W. Bush — has one universal organizing principle that dominates all others, while the integratively complex thinker — Obama — balances many competing goals.
Philip Tetlock, a professor of psychology with the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, found that politicians on the center-left (where Obama dwells) tend to have the highest degree of integrative complexity, followed by politicians on the center-right. Politicians on the far left and far right are the most simple.
Though Tetlock hasn’t applied his methodology to Obama, the 44th president would seem to be the very model of the complex thinker. Among the complex thinker’s advantages, says Tetlock, is the ability to see quickly the trade-offs among policy options, to update his beliefs after finding evidence that disproves his preconceptions, and to predict probable outcomes with accuracy. Among the disadvantages: The complex thinker can suffer from “analysis paralysis” and confusion; he can be perceived as unprincipled or disloyal to the values that elevated him to power; and he can be seen as too willing to make trade-offs.