What the Bard and Lear Can Tell a Leader About Yes Men

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, March 19, 2007

In Shakespeare's "King Lear," a powerful man comes to a tragic end because he surrounds himself with flatterers and banishes the friends who will not varnish the truth to please him.

Several controversies in the past six years of the Bush administration -- including two in the news last week -- bring Lear to mind. From discrediting a covert CIA officer whose husband had criticized the invasion of Iraq to having the Justice Department find out which U.S. attorneys were "loyal Bushies," from sidelining a general who said more troops would be needed in Iraq to silencing government scientists who advocated action against global warming, from sniping at an actuary whose numbers didn't square with the administration's health-care cost projections to belittling those who warned against using inhumane techniques against detainees, the Bush administration has regularly evinced a with-me-or-against-me attitude to criticism.

Psychological experiments show that nearly everyone is susceptible to the lure of ignoring criticism. We are innately drawn to those who admire us and agree with us, and inclined to dislike the people who criticize us.

There are two important differences, however, between ordinary people and the powerful. Kings, presidents and CEOs get to decide who surrounds them and what they will hear. Even those leaders who invite critics into their circle may not hear contrary views because the bravest of employees can find it difficult to tell their bosses things they do not wish to hear.

"People in high-power positions are flattered a lot, so they don't get realistic feedback from others," said Dutch social psychologist Roos Vonk, who has conducted experiments into how ingratiation works. "That happens a lot with politicians because they are surrounded by people who support them. They get a very unrealistic image of themselves.

"They find it difficult to tolerate people who disagree with them, and they don't need to tolerate them, because they have high power -- they can always find people who will agree with them."

Vonk cited a Dutch proverb that summed up the phenomenon: Powerful men and beautiful women never get to hear the truth.

In a series of experiments, the psychologist found that people tend to believe flattery directed at them, even though they recognize such praise as fake when directed at a third party. Vonk said the error arises because people generally believe they are better than others recognize. When someone says nice things about us, this assessment "fits better" with our intuitive sense of ourselves, making flattery feel more accurate than criticism.

Vonk said this means leaders and managers who want honest feedback must go to extraordinary lengths to solicit criticism -- which is difficult to do because leaders also seek to project decisiveness.

Social psychologists have long studied what happens to groups that exclude contrarian viewpoints, and in the 1970s Irving Janis first coined the term "groupthink" to describe the phenomenon. Two decades later, Philip Tetlock, a professor of organizational behavior and political science at the University of California at Berkeley, analyzed decisions around crucial moments in history, such as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler, John F. Kennedy's Bay of Pigs invasion, Richard Nixon's efforts to cover up Watergate, and Lyndon Johnson's escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Tetlock found that leaders who encouraged dissent were more likely to make the right calls compared with those who discouraged dissent. But he found that leaders who welcomed contrary points of view were not guaranteed success -- Jimmy Carter's botched attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran being one example.

Overconfidence is a central problem for policymakers, Tetlock said. Political experts are more confident about their predictions than their track records (and results) warrant.

Tetlock said liberals might be more comfortable than conservatives with the idea of systematically encouraging dissent, but presidential scholar Fred I. Greenstein said his study of chief executives over the past half century showed that the man who best exemplified the encourage-conflicting-views approach was Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Greenstein, the co-author of "How Presidents Test Reality," credited Eisenhower's approach with keeping the United States out of Indochina in the mid-1950s, noting that Democratic presidents pursued the opposite style of decision making a decade later in Vietnam.

"It was the antithesis of cherry-picking points of view," he said of Eisenhower's technique, which included not only finding people who disagreed with the president but also helping them perfect their arguments. "They often had contrasting points of view in parallel columns. They would be for and against encouraging a coup in Guatemala, or engaging in a missile program. The idea was to institutionalize disagreement."

Greenstein said history would have to rank how Bush compares with other presidents in aversion to dissent, but said there is little doubt Bush has hurt himself by shutting out people who disagree with him -- as King Lear also did.

"Shakespeare is one of our great social scientists," Greenstein said.

There is another reason the Lear analogy may be particularly apposite. By the end of the play, with death and disaster all around, Shakespeare makes sure you understand that King Lear's tragedy was not just his own.

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