The recent media firestorm surrounding Scott McClellan’s tell-all about the Bush administration obscures some observations about George W. Bush that deserve scrutiny. They are nothing new. Indeed, another book, published last Fall, made some remarkably similar points. Its title, Dead Certain, perhaps says it all.
Much like McClellan, author of Dead Certain Robert Draper paints a portrait of Mr. Bush as a staunch optimist, supremely confident in his views and judgments and heedless of bad news and disconfirming information. Needless to say, a strong argument could be made that his dead certainty and abundant confidence have led him to make some policy errors with grave consequences for his administration, his party, and the country. From assuming that we’d be happily welcomed as liberators in Iraq, to proclaiming “mission accomplished” in 2004, to spending the political capital he claimed to have earned with his 2004 election on such undeniably risky (and arguably ill-advised) propositions as the overhaul of social security and the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, Mr. Bush’s compulsive confidence and optimism are partly responsible for his plummeting approval ratings, his party’s loss of the House and Senate, and the nation’s inchoate sense of unease.
As an experimental social psychologist, my job is not to analyze anyone’s personality, let alone an individual whom I’ve never seen larger than in a 42-inch image. However, Draper’s and McClellan’s characterizations of Bush lead me to ask, “How much optimism and confidence is good for world leaders and how much is too much?”
In psychology, there are mountains of data – two separate literatures’ worth – illustrating the benefits of being confident and optimistic. Those who score high on measures of optimism and self-esteem at Time 1 are relatively more likely to achieve their goals, obtain high grades, recover swiftly from surgeries, and enjoy satisfying relationships at Time 2. One reason may be that feeling sanguine about the future and certain about one’s abilities fosters motivation and initiative and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy such that, all things being equal, a confident person may be more likely to achieve her goals than someone equally able but less secure. Those who are optimistic and self-assured are also more appealing to others and may attract loyal and knowledgeable friends and advisors.
Clearly, anyone who achieves the presidency has experienced a string of good luck and fortunate circumstances, has won many more contests than the average person, and has much more reason than the rest of us to believe in his abilities and good fortune.
At what point do optimism and confidence become toxic? Psychologists argue that many, if not all, human traits have optimal levels. For example, studies demonstrate that people who report themselves as happy at age 18 will obtain more years of education and earn higher incomes in their 30s than will their less happy 18-year-old peers, but that those who score above the 90th percentile in happiness will actually do worse. Furthermore, research on the dark side of self-esteem suggests that too much self-esteem is associated with narcissism, prejudice, bullying, and other undesirable characteristics. And, finally, there is evidence that the most adaptive type of optimism is a “flexible optimism.” Flexible optimists are able to judge which situations call for optimism (e.g., when asking someone on a date, trying to sell something, or giving a speech), and which call for a more restrained optimism or defensive pessimism (e.g., when studying for a test or waging war). I vote for quiet confidence and restrained optimism in our world leaders.