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Clinton, Obama and the Narcissist's Tale

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, April 28, 2008

Put yourself in the shoes of Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. You are widely seen by Democratic voters as a transformational presidential candidate. Democrats are nearly evenly divided between you and your competitor, and you think you are the best candidate for your party -- and the one more likely to beat Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in November. Your supporters passionately believe you ought to win the race.

The longer the race goes on, however, the more bitter it becomes. Increasing numbers of your supporters say they will never support your competitor. And growing numbers of Democrats, once excited at the prospect of two extraordinary candidates, are turned off by all the negativity. What should you do? Pulling out of the race means giving up your dream -- when you think you are the better choice. Staying in risks collective disaster.

The fault line in this dilemma -- the interests of a candidate pitted against the collective interest of his or her party -- shows up in many economic and political domains and is sometimes called the "tragedy of the commons." Individuals embroiled in similar dilemmas find them impossible to solve on their own, because they are confronted by a Hobson's Choice: Act selfishly and cause collective disaster, or act altruistically and aid someone else who is acting selfishly. Either way, selfishness wins.

"The way the system is set up, the more-selfish person has a higher probability of winning," social psychologist W. Keith Campbell said of the Democratic primary. "You end up with the more narcissistic, belligerent candidate."

Campbell once conducted an experiment that tested the same fault line. He asked volunteers to play the role of timber companies in a forest. The volunteers were told they could harvest a certain number of acres each year, and were also told how quickly the forest could replenish itself. The question was whether volunteers -- thinking on their own and without discussions with other volunteers -- would restrict themselves to taking less than half the timber that they were allowed. If everyone did this, the forest would replenish itself in perpetuity, creating the greatest wealth in the long term.

But because the volunteers did not know whether their kindness would be reciprocated by others or exploited by competitors, people raced to cut as much timber as they could and quickly razed the forests to the ground. Groups with volunteers more willing to think about the collective good preserved their forests longer. But selfish people within these groups had a field day exploiting the altruists -- and the forests perished anyway.

Campbell's experiment is particularly relevant to politics, because he found that groups with a larger number of narcissists -- people with an inflated sense of their own importance -- tended to raze the forests much faster than groups in which people felt less self-important. Politics, unfortunately, happens to be a domain that self-selects people with an inflated sense of their own importance.

In fact, one method Campbell used to ascertain whether a volunteer was a narcissist likely to cause collective catastrophe was to ask the person to choose one of the following statements to describe himself or herself. (No prizes for guessing how presidential aspirants would answer.)

1. If I ruled the world, it would be a much better place.

2. The thought of ruling the world frightens the hell out of me.

While it is easy to understand why worried Democrats have begun to advise Clinton and Obama to keep the good of the party in mind and to refrain from beating each other up so badly that neither can win in November, such advice overlooks the central problem with tragedies of the commons, which University of Arizona political scientist Edella Schlager summed up neatly: "Rational individuals are trapped. To act rationally, to pursue one's self-interest, leads to collective ruin. To act irrationally, to place the collective interest above one's self-interest, exposes one to exploitation."

Schlager said the only way to prevent tragedies of the commons is to set up structures in advance that reward long-term thinking and punish short-term selfishness. This happens mostly among competitors who share long-term interests and have social relationships of trust: If you and I are Maine lobstermen, we are likely to agree to set up limits on the overall catch each year because we see our future, and our children's future, inextricably linked. In the absence of trust and long-term relationships, the only way to prevent these tragedies is to have an outside regulatory agency step in to establish -- and enforce -- limits.

Bitter political contestants such as Obama and Clinton cannot behave like Maine lobstermen because a political race is, by definition, a short-term struggle. Minus intervention by "outside regulators" -- in this case, neutral Democratic Party leaders who can establish and enforce limits on the race -- a perfectly rational Obama and a perfectly rational Clinton can easily drive their party over a cliff.

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