I’ve always been interested in really smart people who are cocksure about really dumb ideas.  Drew Westen’s recent presentation at this year’s American Psychological Association Conference in Toronto helped me explore this phenomenon even further.

Professor Drew Westen, from Emory University, is a very smart man.  He is a prominent psychological consultant for Democratic candidates, and the author of The Political Brain, a sort of Winning Elections for Democratic Dummies.  Westen’s research is fascinating—he is the principal author of a paper I discussed in my previous post, showing how those who hold strong political views think about politics in an emotional rather than rational fashion. 

The introduction to Westen’s session was a real eye-opener.  The moderator was so confident everyone in the room was a staunch Democrat that he jokingly interrupted his disclaimer that the APA couldn’t be seen as endorsing any particular political party with repeated exhortations of “Barack!”  (You might think I’m kidding, but I’m not.)  Party unity thus assured, the session began.

A brief video of an embarrassing Jennifer Lopez-inspired slip of the tongue by Fox newscaster Shepard Smith led to Westen’s first key point: the general public associates the word liberal with negative connotations that, (he confidently assured us), were untrue—elite, tax and spend, out of touch, big government The word conservative, on the other hand, had no negative associations. 

Hold on a minute. Has Westen studied this?  If so, why didn’t he present the results so we could judge for ourselves?  It would be interesting to analyze Westen’s own word linkages.  As he spoke, I heard the word conservative disdainfully associated with racist, intolerant, and narrow-minded

The heart of Westen’s presentation consisted of an uncritical compendium of Democratic talking points—he might as well have been speaking at party headquarters.  Problems with the housing market were blamed on deregulation, without mention of the crucial role of Congress itself in the debacle. People opposed to legalizing illegal immigrants were condescendingly branded as either unaware of facts or outright racists—legitimate conservative concerns were minimized or left unmentioned. (Disclaimer: our Chilean son-in-law, along with our two defacto sons—Muslim refugees from Kosovo whom we put through college—ensure my husband and I are very much attuned to immigration issues.)  Nationalized health care was simplistically made to seem necessary because of evil, profit-taking insurance companies.  Nary a mention was made of understandable conservative concerns about the Democrats’ ability to construct a fiscally responsible, workable program. 

Well-meaning though he is, Westen seems completely unaware of the problems within the Democratic Party that turn his rephrasing of Democratic talking points into outright propaganda.   He can fiddle all he wants with the words he uses to present a program, but the reality is, there are many ways to screw up a complex program when it’s being implemented, and few ways to get it right.  Westen may make big consulting bucks off of recommendations for cosmetic rephrasing of Democratic talking points, but what does that have to do with integrity in the actual implementation of those points, which is what people really care about?  In any case, discounting legitimate criticism by tarring your opponents with nasty associations and misrepresenting many of their legitimate concerns, as Westen did in his presentation, is a surefire way to screw anything up. 

How can Drew Westen, a remarkably intelligent man, make the kinds of one-sided statements he made, and why did no one in the room question the sheer inanity of what was being presented? 

My theory—call it the “Oakley effect”—is that really smart people often don’t know how to accept and react constructively to criticism.  (A neuroscientist might say they “have underdeveloped neurocircuitry for integrating negatively valenced stimuli.”)  This is because smart people are whizzes at problems that only need one person to figure out.  Indeed, people are evaluated from kindergarten through college prep SATs on the basis of such “single solver” problems.  If you are often or nearly always right with these kinds of problems, your increased confidence in your own abilities would be accompanied by an inadvertent decrease in your capacity to deal with criticism.  After all, your experience would have shown that your critics were usually wrong.

But most large-scale societal issues are not single solver problems.  They are so richly complex that no single person can faultlessly teach him or herself all the key concepts, which are often both contradictory and important.  Yes, smart people have an advantage in dealing with such problems, because they’ve got natural brain-power that allows them to hold many factors in mind at once, bringing formidable problem-solving skills to bear.  But smart people have a natural disadvantage, too: they’re not used to changing their thinking in response to criticism when they get things wrong. 

In fact, natural smarties—the intellectual elite—often don’t seem to learn the art of soliciting the criticism necessary to grasp the core issues of a complex problem, and then making vital adaptations as a result.  Instead, they fall in naturally with people who admire, rather than are critical, of their thinking.  This further strengthens their conviction they are right even as it distances them from people of very different backgrounds who grasp very different, but no less crucial aspects of complex problems. That’s why the intellectual elite is often branded by those from other groups as out of touch.  

Normally when I see out-and-out Democratic partisanship going on at an academic conference, I try to make a reasoned objection without creating too much of a fuss. After all, these people are my colleagues and friends—they often don’t realize how partisan they are being.  But this was my first time at an APA convention. I couldn’t resist making a few initial field observations without disturbing the wildlife in its natural habitat.

My guess is that no one objected to the talk because of groupthink of similarly trained and motivated professionals. Self-selection is probably another culprit.  A history of poor leadership at multiple levels of the APA that condones, if not encourages, a culture of denigration of conservatives is yet another.  (Famed Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, a former president of the APA, has done much to emphasize the importance of the organization in causing dysfunctional situations.) 

But whatever the reason, it’s a sad commentary on the lack of critical skills, blind inability to apply their own theories, and utter uniformity of thinking among today’s psychologists that not a single person in that room took issue with the extraordinary bias in Westen’s presentation, which literally made a joke out of profound violation of the APA’s not-for-profit status.  How ironic that Westen himself is a leading example of the partisan political irrationality that his own research revealed.

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Cartoon courtesy Ron Wheeler

(Note for those searching for deeper meaning in the image. I'm an agnostic myself, although I've got friends who are hard core, tree-hugging atheists as well as fundamentalist Christians. I just happened to like the goofy expression on the donkey's face and thought it provided a nice ecumenical touch.)

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