Thursday, March 11, 2010

Todd Kashdan - Why We Need Psychologists in Government and the White House

Interesting argument - and an almost convincing perspective. One of the comments raises the specter of using psychologists in government for less than noble purposes, not unlike those who were used to design interrogation techniques for the CIA to use on "enemy combatants." Kashdan replies that we would put only the best people in those jobs, but knowing how government works, that is not likely to ever happen.

Anyway, it's worth the read - he acknowledges that this article is just a humble beginning toward rethinking government. By the way, Kashdan is the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life - you can read his argument for why his book will help you [PDF].

Why We Need Psychologists in Government and the White House

Todd Kashdan

Clinical psychologist, scientist, professor of psychology at George Mason University

No single person is qualified for any major government position. Consider Homeland Security. Who happens to be an expert in global politics, terrorism, immigration, computer viruses, culture and religion, modern weaponry, anxiety management, health communication, and conflict resolution (just to name a few)? Don't misunderstand me. I am not criticizing Secretary Janet Napolitano or her predecessors or successors. My point is that we need to take a close look at how people are selected to run our country.

I could care less if someone paid their dues with decades of government experience. In fact, this often works against people's ability to improve the welfare of the country. Because they are inside the system, they often fail to pay attention to what is arcane and wasteful of resources to an outsider. Instead of relaying recent examples such as filibusters and nuclear options in the Senate, consider that in New Jersey, it is illegal to pump your own gas (because why would taxpayers want short lines at rest stops); in Wisconsin, it is illegal to make cheese without a license (because why should the government miss an opportunity to profit from culinary creations in your home); in Florida, there is a law that is very specific about prohibiting sexual relations with porcupines (now maybe this is a good thing because quills hurt). When your life is devoted to testing and challenging ideas, it is easier to ask basic questions such as who made this rule and do the benefits outweigh the costs. But I want even more from my leaders.

I want someone who can critically analyze information, consider alternative perspectives before reaching a formal decision, communicate in an emotionally intelligent and persuasive manner, and form good relationships with people. Being able to analyze information is insufficient if you can't reach decisions. Being open to alternative perspectives is insufficient if you can't critically assess what information is helpful, unhelpful, and tangential. Forming good relationships is insufficient if you are unable to critically assess other people's biases and take this into account when working with them. Being able to reach a decision is insufficient if you can't communicate in a clear, persuasive manner why it is the best possible option.

We need people that are experts in problem solving, decision making, communication, human behavior, and social relationships to create the conditions for a government to function optimally. This is the province of people trained in psychology -- the science of human mental functioning and behavior.

Our educational system is a prime example of the gap between what science knows and how organizations function. Currently, our schools require children to narrowly concentrate on the correct answer to clearly defined questions formulated by other people. Unfortunately, this approach is divorced from what children confront in their daily lives-terrain where the problems often have yet to be formulated and the available information and possible answers are often ambiguous at best. Our children are being trained for the future by passively consuming information about what happened in the past. With this approach, our children are ill-prepared for practical and creative thinking. A more scientifically informed approach would focus on how to be mindfully aware of the unique nature of a given situation, how to tolerate ambiguity, and how to critically examine and synthesize diverse perspectives. This is not about being politically correct. This is about recognizing that our knowledge and perspective is limited. Only through multiple perspectives can we grasp the totality of an idea or issue.

Who cares if children can do well on a standardized exam? Who cares if they know when the Magna Carta was issued? Who cares if they can name the United States president before John F. Kennedy? I want children to think through the decision of whether or not to have a trade embargo with Cuba. I want children to consider and defend good candidates for a mission to colonize another planet (scientists? teachers? working mothers with law degrees? children who survived a drug-infested Ghetto to attend college?). I want children to work through the dilemma of how to provide disaster relief for Haiti earthquake survivors while simultaneously diverting some resources to prepare for a sustainable future. As for trigonometry, they can take online tutorials and exams online and upon feedback, get assistance as needed. Nobody needs trig to thrive in the real world. If you do, go read a book. Something children can learn as they are trained to be good critical thinkers. Psychologists know this. The science shows that the dominant passive learning approach is abysmal. Most schools and government officials simply aren't paying attention. If you happen to care about future generations, then our educational system is a problem....

If we value effective leadership, productivity, creativity, and human welfare, then it is time for psychologists to enter the fray of government. Consider the litany of policy issues where psychology can inform best practice: education, health care, the economy, science and technology, international relationships, war and peace, and preserving and enhancing the environment. Most importantly, humans are deeply biased in their thinking and this is relevant to every single government initiative.

Our preferences are driven by the status quo. We are biased to keep things the way they are and avoid risks generated by change. One of many reasons why it's good to bring outsiders into major government positions. Our preferences are driven by immediate gratification. Looming pain or pleasure clouds our thinking process. The average government official is not immune to this, especially in a climate where viral communication can mobilize thousands of people in mere seconds to rally against them. Our choices are heavily influenced by peers that are physically or socially nearby. We are biased to make a good impression on other people and sometimes trying to look intelligent and confident leads to poor decisions. But this can also work in a positive direction. Consider this fact- more than 50% of American Nobel Prize winners were taught by prior Nobel Prize winners. We need people who are mindfully aware that their choices, and the certainty and satisfaction in them, are guided by comparisons made to others. Lack of awareness of this bias will lead to another Tuskegee syphilis study or Bay of Pigs invasion.

All specialized knowledge is by definition, antiquated. There are no maps for being a creative, effective government. There are no rules for how to maintain healthy relationships with countries such as China, Iran, and Russia because leadership continually changes. Different people with different personalities and different styles of leadership face unique pressures from present day constituents. If we want to increase the likelihood of obtaining the best possible outcome for all parties, we are going to need people in government that are experts in human behavior.

Want more information? Know somebody in government who might listen? Please do me a favor and pass this on. The time has come to change how government operates. This is just a very, very humble starting point.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He is the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. For more about his books and research, go to or Research Laboratory.

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