Dear Obama: For SCOTUS decision, listen to your heart . . .

It’s official: Justice John Paul Stevens has announced that he will retire at the end of the term.  But Justice Stevens’ announcement signaled much more than the end of his honorable service; the announcement was, in effect, a signal that the Capitol should prepare for battle.  Warring factions – political parties, advocacy groups, lobbyists – have already sprung into action, releasing news releases, action messages, and flash reports excoriating one potential nominee or another.  (Political) war is coming.  And through all the chaos and cacophony of a Supreme Court nomination, one man must sift through a massive amount of chatter and make a decision.  President Obama must make a choice – a complex and sensitive choice, after healthcare reform and before the midterm election, with an inspired left and an apoplectic right.

Given the complexity and sensitivity of his task, perhaps Obama should gather all the information possible, view the situation from every angle, chew the decision over and over in his mind, ruminate and reflect – all part of a process of reaching the optimal political and moral decision.

Or, maybe he should just go with his gut.  After the jump, I introduce some classic research in cognitive science to explain why an emotional decision could be better than a holistic decision – even when a judicial nomination is at stake.

Walter Dellinger, a Supreme Court litigator, predicts that President Obama – a constitutional scholar who deeply and sincerely cares about the composition of the Court – is  likely to base his decision as much on “passion” as on “politics”:

“I think that in choosing a Supreme Court justice,” Mr. Dellinger said, “the president is less likely to compromise and more likely to go with his heart than on any other matter.”

The risk that the President will base an important political decision on his “heart” (which is not, in fact, part of the brain) will unnerve his base and galvanize the opposition.  After all, the conventional wisdom is that “snap,” hot decision-making is worse than deliberate, cold decision-making.  Emotions cloud reason.  We’re told: “Don’t make a critical decision when you’re emotional.  Sit back, relax, and wait until you cool off.  Otherwise, you’ll regret it.”

In sharp contrast, holistic decision-making is highly valued.  Benjamin Franklin once explained that the proper method to make a decision was to execute “prudential algebra”:

“I divide a half Sheet of Paper by a line into two Columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con.  Then during three or four Days Consideration, I put down under different Heads short Hints of the different Motives . . . for or against the Measure.  When I have thus got them all together in one View, I endeavor to estimate their respective Weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out. . . .  [T]hus proceeding I find at length where the balance lies.”  (Quoted in Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart.)

With all due respect to Ben Franklin, however, the conventional faith we place in prudential algebra is misplaced.  Indeed, three classics of cognitive science reveal the wisdom of heuristic, emotional decision-making.

First, consider the research of the ABC Research Group and Gerd Gigerenzer, outlined in Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart (1999).  Gigerenzer’s research proceeds from Herbert Simon’s fundamental insight of “bounded rationality.”  Because the computational prowess of our neural architecture is limited, the boundedly-rational mind must rely on an adaptive toolbox of heuristics, or cognitive shortcuts, to simplify and to make sense of the otherwise overwhelming primary stimuli and sensory data of our elaborate world.  Granted, heuristics sometimes misfire and generate poor decisions.  But heuristics are fast, frugal, and accurate – even relative to more sophisticated statistical decision-making mechanisms, such as multiple regression analysis.  The Take the Best heuristic, for example, is a lexicographic, cybernetic procedure that counsels the decision-maker to choose between two options by (1) searching through rank-ordered cues, (2) comparing the options along each successive cue, and (3) stopping as soon as one option is the clear winner along a specific cue.  Surprisingly, the researchers found that Take the Best often matches or outperforms the accuracy of multiple regression analysis, especially where information in scarce, redundant, or noisy and the decision-maker is experienced enough to rank order the cues.

Second, consider Descartes’ Error (1994) by Antonio R. Damasio.  According to Damasio’s somatic-marker hypothesis, neural representations of body states, known as somatic markers, associate behavioral choices with affective significance.  Emotions imbue options that yield bad outcomes with unpleasant visceral feelings and options that yield good outcomes with pleasant visceral feelings.  As we focus on decisions associated with good visceral feelings and ignore decisions associated with bad visceral feelings, we limit the available options in our choice set to those laden with positive affect.  Although Damasio himself did not connect his theory to Gigerenzer’s research, it’s obvious that emotions can serve as fast, frugal, and accurate heuristics in the adaptive toolbox.  If, through past experience and learning, we’ve developed a negative association with a certain option, then we’ll feel a negative emotion when considering the option, and thus eliminate it from our choice set.

Third, consider the seminal work of Robert Frank, Passions within Reason (1988).  Frank suggests that emotions are strategic tools to solve commitment problems.  They steer us from short-term temptations toward long-term gains.  For one, emotions prevent us from defecting in response to cooperators in sequential PDs (as we’ve discussed on our blog before).  By counseling cooperation, emotions help us engender a reputation for being cooperative; an altruistic reputation, in turn, attracts like-minded altruists and ensures a series of fitness-enhancing cooperative partnerships.  Conversely, emotions incite us to reject unfair ultimatum offers (which we’ve also discussed).  A willingness to punish unfairness lends credibility to threats; a strong reputation of doggedness earns future rewards by deterring free-riding and compelling others to act fairly.

These three classics undermine the conventional wisdom that President Obama will be ill-served to go with his gut instinct.  For a nomination with countless political and moral implications, it will be impossible for Obama to collect all the information relevant to his nominating decision and execute prudential algebra.  With respect to each candidate, Obama must evaluate:

  • the extent to which the nomination itself will [hurt/harm] [Obama/the Democratic Party/the Republican Party/our society] in the [short-run/intermediate-run/long-run];
  • the extent to which the candidate itself will [hurt/harm] [Obama/the Democratic Party/the Republican Party/our society] in the [short-run/intermediate-run/long-run];
  • the extent to which the [nomination/candidate] will [advance/impair] [Obama’s judicial philosophy/Obama’s legacy/our society];
  • and so forth.

If Obama attempts to measure the expected utility of each candidate along each political/moral dimension, he will inevitably neglect a certain dimension not listed above, miscalculate the weight of a dimension, miscalculate the true utility of a candidate along a certain dimension, and so on.  Each additional, marginal token of information can pull the decision in the wrong direction, widening the gap between expected utility and actual utility (measured at some future point with hindsight).  Put simply: The more information, the greater the likelihood of error.

Instead, Obama should incorporate lessons from the classics of cognitive science.  First, he shouldn’t fear making a snap judgment, for as noted above, complicating the decision could confuse him into considering a factor that objectively doesn’t deserve consideration, thus leading him to select an inferior candidate.  The informational environment is noisy (i.e., the amount of potentially relevant information is enormous and the amount of actually verifiable information is scarce), and Obama has sufficient experience at least to rank order some criteria.  Second, he should accept that one acceptable heuristic to prune his decision tree is to rely on his gut instinct.  If the thought of nominating a certain candidate gives him an ulcer, he should trust his unconscious judgment and stay away, as there’s likely a reason – based on past experience and learning – that he associates the candidate with ulcerous feelings.  Third, he should take solace in the possibility that even if he makes a bold decision based on passion, he will enhance his own reputation as a bold decision-maker.  By “removing the steering wheel” and unflinchingly committing to the candidate that most inspires him, he can signal to Republicans that their threats won’t deter him – perhaps making them realize that compromise, not confrontation, is the way to deal with our passionate leader.

2 Responses to Dear Obama: For SCOTUS decision, listen to your heart . . .

  1. jrpote says:

    Very interesting! You make a pretty compelling case for intuitive judgment.

  2. Julia says:

    I agree! Information-deficit model, in many cases, does not work so well. ;)

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