Why We Shouldn’t Elect Hedgehogs as Presidents

From a conversation at heleo.com between Adam Grant, an author and organizational psychologist at Wharton, and Malcolm Gladwell, an author and journalist:

Malcolm: How should this change the way we pick presidents?

Adam: Wow. We are not supposed to talk about any Wharton alums in public. [Donald Trump is a Wharton alum.] I’m going to speak in generalities here. First of all, it’s unbelievable that we have an election process that’s basically a popularity contest, instead of a competence contest. I would be willing to vote for anyone who demonstrates effective leadership skills, decision making, forecasting, visioning, conflict resolution, various points on the ideology spectrum.

If they show me they can lead effectively, I want that person in charge of the country. If you look at research on American presidents, the most effective ones consistently were the ones who were willing to challenge the status quo. Look at Lincoln, for example. Lincoln was widely unpopular in his time for making some decisions that a lot of people disagreed with and yet, probably the most important thing that’s happened in this country to date.

I would love to see a process where we could figure out, “Who’s able to take an original, nonconforming vision and get other people behind it?” I would also explode the two-party system. It’s a disaster.

Malcolm: One of the great curiosities about the American electoral process, and I say this as a Canadian, is that it’s essentially structured around a series of debates. You’re selected on your debating skills. Then the minute you get into the office, you stop debating. It’s very odd. We might as well see if they are good at playing golf.

Adam: We actually do a fair amount of that too.

Malcolm: Then as I thought about it, when you give your character template that you think is so useful for original thinking, which has to do with self-reflection, humility, willingness to accept criticism, thoughtfulness, et cetera, all of those things are on display in a debate. Maybe the problem isn’t the debate. Maybe the problem is the way in which we’re interpreting behavior in a debate.

Adam: Debates end up largely rewarding the person who is most successfully aggressive, as opposed to the person who is able to bring a new perspective to the table, or make us think differently. Philip Tetlock‘s work on foxes and hedgehogs is so relevant here.

Hedgehogs know one thing well. They see the world black and white. Foxes know many things and are constantly looking at shades of gray. What Philip is always pointing out is that the candidates who are getting elected are the ones who speak like a hedgehog and who use very simple language, and are very clear about their one or two or three policies. That’s exactly the opposite of the people who are good at predicting the future and making decisions.

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