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Oct. 28 2009 - 2:44 pm | 127 views | 2 recommendations | 10 comments

Bush’s Brain: Smart, but Too Certain

George W. Bush, Forty-third President (2001–2009)

Image by cliff1066™ via Flickr

So, I got a hold of that Bush’s Brain paper referenced here, yesterday. I’m not allowed to post the whole thing because the paper has been published as chapter two of “Judging Bush,” just out from Stanford University Press. I can, however, give you a few quotes and a sense of the argument…

The basic premise of the authors, Robert Maranto and Richard E. Redding, is as follows:

SAT scores and other available measures indicate that Bush has sufficient intelligence to serve as president. Yet the best studies, in which raters evaluate statements without being aware of their source, suggest that Bush lacks integrative complexity and thus views issues without nuance. The leading personality theory (the “5-Factor Model”), as measured by the NEO Personality Inventory, suggests that Bush is highly extraverted but not very agreeable or conscientious. He also rates low on “Openness to Experience.” Similarly Immelman (2002) had expert raters judge Bush‟s personality using the Millon Inventory of Diagnostic Criteria. Raters identified Bush as fitting the “Outgoing,” “Dominant (Controlling),” and “Dauntless” personality patterns, which together constitute a style given to lack of reflection, superficiality, and impulsivity. When compared to other presidents, Bush most closely resembles Jackson, Reagan, and Harding, but is very unlike his father, George H.W. Bush.

The “Bush is dumb” meme was always unfair. Those who’ve known him, and not just his loyalists, have always disputed such a characterization. First off, something I didn’t know, “Bush scored a 1200 on the SAT (roughly equaling 1300 on today’s re-normed SAT), placing him in the top 16% of all college applicants.” We also know he had better grades than the smarter-seeming John Kerry at Yale. The authors also peg the best estimate of Bush’s IQ at 120-125, in the top 10% of the population and above average for a college graduate — about the same as estimated for Eisenhower and Ford.

The problem with Bush’s leadership style was never lack of intelligence. It was something much closer to intellectual laziness or lack of curiosity. As the authors put it: “Critics charge that President Bush does not seek out information or opposing viewpoints; disdains complexity, nuances, and expert opinion; views policy issues in black-and-white terms based on his own preconceptions; and, refuses to rethink problems or change his views. The research largely bears out these popular perceptions.”

In summary of the president’s personality, the authors write, “Bush is an extraverted, domineering, and somewhat adventurous and impulsive individual, lacking in conscientiousness, who is intelligent but relatively superficial and unreflective.”

It’s not all bad news for Bush, though. Extraversion and a domineering personality can be a good thing. In fact, the authors credit these traits with what they consider Bush’s biggest domestic achievement, education reform. It’s just that, in a different context, these traits can lead to disaster:

President Bush’s bold, ebullient personality and bias for action helped bring together Democratic and Republican elites to fundamentally reform American public schools. This may be his greatest legacy. The President’s boldness in Afghanistan seemingly succeeded, though his disdain for details limited the scope of that success. Finally, on the signature decision of his administration, President Bush’s tendency to make quick decisions, reluctance to admit error, disdain for details and experts, inability to entertain dissenting opinions, and tendency to categorize opponents as enemies, meant that his administration did not sufficiently plan the invasion of Iraq. Further, he failed to systematically review occupation policy even as countless voices both inside and outside of the administration urged such a review.

Of course, any study like this will have major limits. As the paper notes, “Bush has not submitted himself for a psychological examination,” so we must rely on things like “interviews, statements, news accounts, biographies … and/or the opinions of experts.” But, as much as possible, this analysis was based on scientific evaluations of Bush’s statements, rated by people who didn’t know who made the statements they were rating — stripping the personality assessment of anti-Bush (or any) political bias.

What’s the lesson of an exercise like this? The leader has to match the time. Bush’s traits may well have made him an excellent (or at least decent) president in a time of peace, focused on domestic policy, and restrained by Congress. And, in 2000, that’s what we thought we were electing him to preside over. But in a time of war, in a system where the executive can act decisively and autonomously, his decision-making style was a disaster.

What’s more, his inability to vary his decision-making style was a disaster. The authors make the point that Reagan was often just as black-and-white as President Bush. He thought of the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire.” But, when circumstances changed — when Gorbachev came to power — he adjusted his thinking and his actions quickly.

If only president Bush could have demonstrated half that flexibility and agility.

Follow Neuroworld on Twitter: @ryansager

SAT scores and other available measures indicate that
Bush has sufficient intelligence to serve as president.  Yet the best studies, in which raters
evaluate statements without being aware of their source, suggest that Bush lacks integrative
complexity and thus views issues without nuance (Thoemmes and Conway 2007).  The leading
personality theory (the “5-Factor Model”), as measured by the NEO Personality Inventory,
suggests that Bush is highly extraverted but not very agreeable or conscientious. He also rates
low on “Openness to Experience” (Rubenzer and Faschingbauer 2004).  Similarly Immelman
(2002) had expert raters judge Bush‟s personality using the Millon Inventory of Diagnostic
Criteria. Raters identified Bush as fitting the “Outgoing,” “Dominant (Controlling),” and
“Dauntless” personality patterns, which together constitute a style given to lack of reflection,
superficiality, and impulsivity.  When compared to other presidents, Bush most closely resembles
Jackson, Reagan, and Harding, but is very unlike his father, George H.W. Bush.

Comments

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  1. collapse expand

    Mr. Sager,

    You are correct, Mr. Bush is not stupid, he is a fool. Stupid people have little in the way of brain power, fools have plenty but do not use it. I have known a few people who I thought were pretty dim witted but they were no fools. They were rather successful in their lives, they achieved what they set out to do. Conversely I have know a significant number of people were really smart, much smarter than you, me, or Mr. Bush but they were damned fools. I knew a fellow who had an advanced degree for UC Berkeley and when I met him he was working hard on a system to beat the lottery. I saw I sign once that read “I will is more important than IQ”.

  2. collapse expand

    What a coincidence I was just thinking about Bush and wondered if his intelligence was more like a horse or a mule. Let’s go to the experts at a fancy pants horse show in New York City to ask the experts:

    Alan Bethel, President Standard Triumph Motor Co. says, “No, Bush is definitely like a horse and they are smarter. He doesn’t have as hard a working life as the mule, and he is allowed to share more of the arts and the graces of life. There are horse shows for the horse, and he makes possible “the sport of kings.” A horse has been sold for more than a million dollars. That’s horse sense.”

    Now LIEUT. GENERAL BLACKSHEAR M. BRYAN
    Commander, First U.S. Army disagrees, “Bush is like a mule, Mules are no exhibitionists, like that prancing horse face Kerry and they tend to be “cussed and ornery,” as well as “set in their ways” but, when compared in intelligence to horses, you are insulting the mule. When thirsty, mules will drink only what is necessary, while horses will drink their fill at once if allowed to do so.”

    So there you have it but what they all agree on is that when judging what comes out the rear end of their intelligent bodies is indistinguishable.

  3. collapse expand

    I have no problem believing that Bush was much smarter, natively, than people have him credit for. But his unreflectiveness always showed through. I think he generally came across as having a surface-level psyche, and from what I gather from this post, that’s exactly true. Interesting comment on our country that we’d indulge not just 4, but 8 years of him.

  4. collapse expand

    So with the benefit of hindsight, looking back at Bush’s administration and of course its aftermath, isn’t it interesting to consider what a Sarah Palin administration (and subsequently its aftermath) may look like. Considering it was a pundit who subscribes to the same values as Ms. Palin who pointed out not just her lack of intellect but also her lack of curiosity.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124716984620819351.html

  5. collapse expand

    Bush not dumb? I know people who’ve met him and consider him poorly informed. So, take poorly informed, incurious, arrogant, infected with an entitlement mentality and overlay it with eschatological madness and what do you get? Beyond dumb, frankly. Frighteningly ignorant, especially about details that matter.

    “Oh, these sunni and shias… you mean there’s like a difference?” (shortly before the invasion of Iraq).

    I recommend Managers not MBAs by Henry Mintzberg for an insight into the HBS mentality and the devastating consequences it has wrought.

  6. collapse expand

    Personally I think everything in this guys past transcripts from every school is Doctored, Come on! There is no way this fool could have gotten into Yale without being the son of Politician.

  7. collapse expand

    Reminds me of Philip Tetlock (Berkeley Psychologists) categorization of thinking modes: Hedgehogs vs. Foxes:

    Hedgehogs: thinkers who “know one big thing,” aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing into new domains…

    Foxes: thinkers who know many small things (tricks of their trade), are skeptical of grand schemes, see explanation and prediction not as deductive exercises but rather as exercises in flexible “ad hocery” that require stitching together diverse sources of information, and are rather diffident about their own forecasting prowess.

    for more, see this review: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/12/05/051205crbo_books1

    Bush (and most of the Republican Right as well as the extreme Left in the Democratic Party)fall into the Hedgehog category.

  8. collapse expand

    As an outsider from Australia I note that one thing Bush also was was privileged. He was rich and he was powerful. I wonder if anyone would be searching this deeply for reasons why any normal person wasn’t dumb in the face of so many failures of judgement. One can interogate the black box forever but, by the common standards applied to anyone who does not call into question the reputation of the presidency, the outcome was pure dumb.

  9. collapse expand

    Bush is not an idiot?
    Google Results 1 – 10 of about 37,800,000 for Bush stupid.

    “I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace.” –Washington, D.C. June 18, 2002

    “I’m telling you there’s an enemy that would like to attack America, Americans, again. There just is. That’s the reality of the world. And I wish him all the very best.” –George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., Jan. 12, 2009

    “Goodbye from the world’s biggest polluter.” –George W. Bush, in parting words to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy at his final G-8 Summit, punching the air and grinning widely as the two leaders looked on in shock, Rusutsu, Japan, July 10, 2008

    “I’ll be long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office.” –George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., May 12, 2008

    “The most important thing is for us to find Osama bin Laden. It is our number one priority and we will not rest until we find him.” –Washington, D.C., Sept. 13, 2001
    “I don’t know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don’t care. It’s not that important. It’s not our priority.” –Washington, D.C., March 13, 2002

    “You work three jobs? … Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that….get much sleep? (laughs)” –to a divorced mother of three, Omaha, Nebraska, Feb. 4, 2005

    “Let’s face it: A man who cannot talk about education without making a humiliating grammatical mistake (“The illiteracy level of our children are appalling”); who cannot keep straight the three branches of government (“It’s the executive branch’s job to interpret law”); who coins ridiculous words (“Hispanos,” “arbolist,” “subliminable,” “resignate,” “transformationed”); who habitually says the opposite of what he intends (“the death tax is good for people from all walks of life!”) sounds like a grade-A imbecile….As the president says, we misunderestimate him. He was not born stupid. He chose stupidity. Bush may look like a well-meaning dolt. On consideration, he’s something far more dangerous: a dedicated fool.” ~ Jacob Weisberg

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

    These days, I'm interested in humanity's ever-expanding understanding of its own irrationality. Hence, this blog.

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