Why big shots are often close-minded
A series of experiments (see note #1) reported in the journal Psychological Science sheds light on why powerful people often seem so stubbornly unreceptive to new ideas and hence unwilling to listen to people with them. The upshot of the research is that power—or even the illusion of it—can lead people to grossly overestimate their abilities and inflate their self-esteem. The perception of power can thus “go to one's head.” Powerful people also tend to possess an exaggerated sense of control.
The ability to accurately perceive reality is key to enhancing success and survival, in terms of both evolution and individual lives. Not accurately perceiving reality is incredibly nonadaptive. Gross distortions of the perception of reality occurs in certain psychoses. Some “crazy” people experience hallucinations and delusions that distort their perception of reality and hence are nonadaptive. However, even subtler distortions of reality can produce negative effects. From the standpoint of biology and psychology, the most adaptive beliefs are the ones that most closely comport with reality. Thus, the most adaptive individuals have the most accurate sense of their abilities, neither minimizing them (e.g., people with poor self-esteem) nor overestimating them (e.g., Presidents who know virtually nothing about economics yet think they can solve our economic crisis).
When I worked as an attending ER doctor in a teaching hospital, one of my responsibilities was to supervise resident physicians in the emergency department. I quickly learned that the most dangerous doctors aren't the ones who didn't know something, but the ones who didn't know and wouldn't admit it. If they didn't know, I could teach them. If they told me they knew how to do something (start a central IV line, repair a laceration, intubate, defibrillate, etc.) but really didn't know what the heck they were doing, they could do a lot of damage. I walked in one room and found the resident had defibrillated the patient so many times at such short intervals that the room smelled like a summer barbeque.
Obama fans: Reading Comment #206 (below) will likely keep you from blowing a fuse, thinking this article isn't fair.
When I think of the dangers of people who purposely camouflage their ignorance, I think of Barack Obama. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Obama did nothing to dispel the notion that he is some sort of a once-in-a-lifetime genius—a political Einstein, in other words. However, as an ER doctor with years of experience rapidly assessing the mental status of patients, I knew that Obama was smart, but hardly a genius. His vaunted ability to give speeches is attributable to a flair for reading a teleprompter. In fact, he used that teleprompter crutch to introduce a Cabinet nominee. Why would a genius need a teleprompter to give such a short introductory speech? And why would a genius refuse to release his college records? Might the genius have flunked Economics?
In early March 2009, Obama revealed how little he knows about economics by saying, “What you’re now seeing is, profit and earning ratios are starting to get to the point where buying stocks is a potentially good deal if you've got a long-term perspective on it.”
Ahem. Even folks who received a D– in Economics 101 know that P/E ratios refer to price-to-earnings ratios, not profit and earnings ratios! This degree of ignorance is like a doctor not knowing what penicillin is, or a builder not knowing what a 2x4 is—it's simply unfathomable! If Obama doesn't know Econ 101 basics, do you think he knows enough to end our economic crisis?
Imagine that you took your young daughter to the ER after she developed a high fever, severe headache, and a new-onset seizure. If most of what the doctor said indicated that she knew little about pediatric emergency medicine, you'd want another doctor, stat. Millions of people who voted for Obama now wish they could change their vote because the President clearly doesn't know how to rescue the economy, nor has he mastered Economics 101. Isn't it odd how people wouldn't tolerate a doctor who was similarly ignorant, yet they put up with a President in dire need of remedial education?
President Obama has enormous power, and it's gone to his head. He is grossly overestimating his abilities. He doesn't know Econ 101 basics, yet he is trying to delude us into thinking that he has The Right Stuff to tinker with our economy without making a bad situation even worse.
Doctors cannot practice medicine without passing many examinations. It's too bad that politicians are not held to the same standard. They can wield far more power even when they don't really know what they're doing. If they sound good, as Obama does, they can enthrall people with their style, but style will not solve this crisis.
Let's return to the ER. Your daughter is still seizing. She's becoming increasingly blue. You scream, “I want another doctor in here NOW!”
Now imagine that a nurse tries to soothe your anger by touting not the qualifications of the ER doctor, but her style. “Hey, you're a man. Don't you just love how her spiffy mini-skirt reveals so much of her luscious legs? And what about her lovely smile? Or her shiny blonde hair?”
If a nurse said anything even half that daffy in such a circumstance, your rage would skyrocket, and rightfully so. Similarly, the Americans who care about substance over style are livid about the inexplicable and even offensive priorities of American voters whose love affair with style put an incompetent captain at the helm of a ship that is navigating very treacherous waters.
- Free the Idea Monkey (great site and book)
- Brand New: Solving the Innovation Paradox -- How Great Brands Invent and Launch New Products, Services, and Business Models
- Oreck bankruptcy: Company looking for a buyer, files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy
Comment: David Oreck is admirable, savvy, and very smart, and I don't know if he is too close-minded to consider inventions from independent inventors, but most companies are, and rarely can any company find all the innovation it needs within its ranks. It's too bad he doesn't know about my vacuum cleaner invention that would permit him to leave all competitors in the dust.