Psychology in the Life of George W. Bush

Part 3: Social Issues.

Posted Aug 09, 2019

Robert Mather
Memorabilia from George W. Bush.
Source: Robert Mather

Given that psychology is the scientific study of mental processes and behavior (thoughts, behavior, and cognition), any autobiography is full of examples of psychological principles in action. I highlight such examples in my “Psychology in the Life of…” series.

George W. Bush was President of the United States from 2001-2009, and published his autobiography Decision Points in 2010. It was sufficiently proximal to his term to detail his thought processes, yet it was before the post-2016 public hysteria that seems to have tainted the interpretation of all U.S. politics.

Indeed, a clear-eyed reading of Decision Points reminds us that U.S. politics have always been a winner-take-all blood sport, and that James Comey, Robert Mueller, and Brett Kavanaugh were relevant before the post-2016 hysteria. Reading about the character of these three men through President Bush’s eyes from before the media madness is an interesting exercise.

In Decision Points, Bush described his decision processes for selecting running mates, cabinet members, etc., as well as his thoughts on his leadership behaviors. But beyond the general psychological themes of decision making and leadership, there were specific instances that described various other principles of psychology. This article examines some of the instances related to social issues.

Alcohol addiction. It is widely know that George W. Bush no longer drinks alcohol, having quit after his 40th birthday party. He describes what led him to his decision, how it was one of the toughest decisions of his life, and how Billy Graham helped him have the faith in God that led him to quit. He also describes his retrospective perspective on a variety of embarrassing moments that alcohol led him to experience, and drinking a non-alcoholic beer with Tony Blair. 

Altruism. Altruism is a person’s desire to benefit someone else for the other person’s benefit (Batson, 2011; Mather, 2011). According to the Theory of Empathy-Induced Altruistic Motivation, there are two pathways to helping behavior. Helping can occur with the ultimate motivation to help the other person (altruistic) or to help the helper (egoistic).

Bush provided a number of examples of altruism that occurred during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, including churches setting up mobile kitchens, New York City firefighters driving down to return a truck the New Orleans Fire Department had loaned them helping after 9/11, and cities welcoming Hurricane Katrina refugees.

Perhaps the biggest example of altruism was the PEPFAR program, which stands for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Created in 2003, by January of 2009 the program had helped treat 2.1 million people and helped care for 10 million people. It had protected mothers and babies for 16 million pregnancies and helped 57 million with AIDS testing and counseling. The Malaria Initiative helped to protect 25 million people by distributing insecticide-treated bed nets, spraying, and providing medicine. 

One egoistic helping perspective was given regarding an example of suffering and inequality.

Our national security was tied directly to human suffering. Societies mired in poverty and disease foster hopelessness. And hopelessness leaves people ripe for recruitment by terrorists and extremists. By confronting suffering in places like Africa, America would strengthen its security and collective soul” George Bush, 2010. p. 336

He noted that with 14 million children having lost parents to AIDS, a generation would be vulnerable to recruitment by extremists. President Bush’s true motives for helping in this instance were altruistic and had been established in the context leading up to these statements. This particular logic was very practical and likely part of a selling point for acquiring the resources to assist, supplementing his empathic concern for the victims.

Racism. Racism is when a person holds prejudiced attitudes against or exhibits discriminatory behavior against a group of people based on race (see Mather & Romo, 2007). After Katrina, accusations of racism in the response were given in which some speculated that the response was insufficient because many of the victims were black.

Bush defended himself in the book with a list of achievements that promoted black interests as well as expressing extreme hurt over the allegations. He stated “I was raised to believe that racism was one of the greatest evils in society” (Bush, 2010, p. 325). He also discussed what it meant when Barack Obama became the first African American President of the United States.

Bailout dilemma. Morality has a long history of study within the field of psychology (Skitka & Conway, 2019). Bush discussed what he called the “moral hazard” of bailing out Bear Stearns in 2008. In this scenario, a failing firm should go out of business without government assistance in a free market economy. A bailout would give other firms the confidence to take unwise risks with the assumption that they would be bailed out as well.

Unfortunately, the financial crises meant that the situation was much more complicated than just allowing a solitary firm to fail, as the entire economic system was at risk. It was interesting that President Bush framed this as a moral dilemma.

Empathy. Empathy occurs when an emotion is elicited by the perceived welfare of someone in need and is consistent with their state (Batson, 2011). President Bush wrote of how during the U.S. War in Afghanistan, he read the names of each American soldier who had been killed. He read each name early in the morning, visualized the pain of the families when they had received the news, and he prayed for them.

He described meeting the family of Air Force Technical Sergeant John Chapman, and how he fought back tears as he talked to the daughters, aged 5 and 3, while he pictured his own girls at that age.

Overall comments on social issues. President Bush’s account of his life illustrated a number of observations relevant to social issues. Decision Points provided insight into many of his thoughts on people and displays his humanity.

References

Batson, C. D. (2011). Altruism in humans. New York: Oxford.

Bush, G. W. (2010). Decision points. New York: Crown.

Mather, R. D. (2011). A new monument to human altruism [Review of Altruism in humans]. PsycCritiques-Contemporary Psychology, 56(37).

Mather, R. D., & Romo, A. (2007). Automaticity and cognitive control in social behavior. Southlake, TX: Fountainhead.

Skitka, L. J., & Conway, P. (2019). Morality. In E. J. Finkel & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.)., Advanced social psychology: The state of the science (2nd ed.) (pp. 299-323). New York: Oxford.