The Science of Presidential Complexity

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By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, January 28, 2008

Mitt Romney wants to round up 12 million illegal immigrants and deport them. John Edwards wants to put an end to lobbyists. All the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates rail against the ways of Washington.

The question is not whether we agree with these views: Politicians stake out such positions precisely because they strike a chord with many voters. The question is why we like our bromides so simple -- especially when the same promises have been offered to us time and again in previous elections.

In an unusual study analyzing State of the Union addresses like the one President Bush will give tonight, psychologists found a curious pattern in the speeches delivered by 41 U.S. presidents. The pattern explains a lot about why politicians such as Romney and Edwards talk to voters the way they do.

The study found that in the first three years after a new president takes office, his speeches displayed higher levels of complexity compared with addresses in the fourth year in office. In the first three speeches, presidents were more likely to acknowledge other points of view, potential pitfalls and unintended consequences. In the fourth year, however -- as they were about to run for reelection -- the complexity of their speeches plunged.

Not only that, but American presidents who showed a sharper decline in complexity were more likely to be reelected than those who continued to acknowledge that the challenges facing the nation were complex.

"Low complexity wins elections," said psychologist Lucian Gideon Conway III of the University of Montana at Missoula, who published his analysis of the presidential speeches in the journal Political Psychology. "People like simple answers, and someone saying, 'I don't have all the answers and here are five possibilities' is a hard sell compared to someone who says, 'I have a plan and it is going to work and my opponent is completely wrong.' "

The result is a paradox. Politicians offer simplistic solutions in order to win elections. But to govern, they must quickly ratchet up their complexity because they confront costs, consequences and compromises. But when up for reelection, it's time to dumb things down again.

The principal beneficiaries of this back-and-forth dance aren't voters, but satirists such as Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" who never have to search very hard to find glaring examples of hypocrisy and pandering.

Conway acknowledged that there could be alternate explanations for the phenomenon that he and co-author Felix Thoemmes, a graduate student now at Arizona State University in Tempe, observed: One is that State of the Union addresses are not a very good indicator of presidential thinking, especially given the increased role of speechwriters in recent decades. Or, he said, the rise and fall in presidential complexity during a first term could merely reflect the mental strain of being president -- after doing a lot of complex thinking for two or three years, they just get tired by the fourth year.

Matthew Scully, who worked on Bush's first four State of the Union addresses, rejected the idea that presidents merely mouth what speechwriters put on paper. These speeches, he said, largely reflect what presidents want to say. Bush, for example, appears to be deeply involved in all stages of speech preparation and editing. Scully offered an alternate explanation for the phenomenon: By the president's fourth year in office, many issues on his agenda may have become law or been shot down. Either way, presidents have a smaller -- and simpler -- platter of issues at that point.

But this doesn't explain why presidents with more simplistic views in their fourth State of the Union speech are more likely to be reelected. Rather, it appears to be the case that the skills required to win power and the skills required to govern are different. In a preliminary analysis of Democratic presidential primary debates in 2004, for example, Conway found that candidates who offered complex arguments were rated less popular in subsequent public opinion polls than those who offered simplistic arguments. Conway emphasized that his study of the debates hadn't yet passed rigorous scientific muster -- but the finding dovetails nicely with work by psychologist Peter Suedfeld at the University of British Columbia, who once found the same pattern among revolutionaries.

Those who changed history -- a group that included leaders from George Washington to Fidel Castro -- invariably had simple ideas as they went about winning power but quickly increased the complexity of their thinking after they obtained power. Revolutionaries who offered complex ideas to begin with or those whose complexity did not quickly increase after wining power usually were failures.

So the next time you hear presidential candidates say simplistic things that people want to hear, remember that they are merely responding rationally to the incentives that voters give them. The disturbing question is not why politicians pander, but why pandering works -- and for that we need to look in the mirror.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company