Personal Identity and Decisionmaking

In George Packer's scathing review of George W. Bush's memoir, there's this:

For Bush, making decisions is an identity question: Who am I? The answer turns Presidential decisions into foregone conclusions: I am someone who believes in the dignity of life, I am the protector of the American people, I am a loyal boss, I am a good man who cares about other people, I am the calcium in the backbone. This sense of conviction made Bush a better candidate than the two Democrats he was fortunate to have as opponents in his Presidential campaigns. But real decisions, which demand the weighing of compelling contrary arguments and often present a choice between bad options, were psychologically intolerable to the Decider. They confused the identity question.
I probably agree with the personal criticism of Bush, and I definitely agree that the identity question corrupts anyone's rational, honest analysis.
I am reminded of Paul Graham's brilliant essay Keep Your Identity Small.

11 comments on “Personal Identity and Decisionmaking
  • I seriously doubt this is different than the way most presidents think, including the current office holder.

  • I’m reading “Decision Points” and finding it hard to put down – but perhaps for all the wrong reasons.

    I disagree with many of Bush’s actions and policies, but he has always seemed like he’d be interesting and fun to talk to. Reading this book, one can’t help but be struck by how little self-knowledge he has. This is clearly a man who has no interest in his own dark side, let alone the urge to explore or embrace it and find out what drives his decisions. There are several unintentionally revealing passages, ones that make me glad he didn’t have a good shrink vet the manuscript before submitting it. Lots of juicy goodness here.

  • Often times those who make decisions based on “carefully weighing” between two bad choices are blind to their own presuppositions. It is a reality that people make decisions on principle rather than true calculation of costs and benefits.

    The best solution to this: Be aware of how little you know. Don’t create societies that have top down decision making.

    Not the solution: Demonize your opponent and rely on your own superiority to make the right sorts of coercive decisions.

  • what is this moral relativist crap I am reading. Good leaders make decisions based on principle, in addition to weighing the facts. The facts have to be weighed against PRINCIPLE.

    Example: if you can save 100 lives by brutally murdering 10, do you do it? The “rational” pinko idiot says yes, but the principled leader says NO

    Note that my argument stands on its merits and has nothing to do with Bush’s specifics.

  • The person who would kill 10 to save 100 is not, strictly speaking, unprincipled – they have different principles.

  • The quote reminded me of something Barack Obama said in an interview with Rolling Stone:

    “One of the things that you realize when you’re in my seat is that, typically, the issues that come to my desk — there are no simple answers to them. Usually what I’m doing is operating on the basis of a bunch of probabilities: I’m looking at the best options available based on the fact that there are no easy choices. If there were easy choices, somebody else would have solved it, and it wouldn’t have come to my desk.”

  • Presidential identity has little to do with their decision making because they hardly ever get to make decisions. Heads of Governments have merely been signatories on the dotted line, marionettes of manipulative intelligence agencies. If one has to analyze Presidential decisions, the right personality to be dissected is not of the President, but of their proxies. Scan their advisers, intelligence agencies or even lobbyists that do the thinking before them and fine comb the quality of data they used, to see the quantum of bias that had crept in, in ways that suited their purposes most than that of the people they are expected to govern.

    I am not even sure if Presidents are allowed to ask questions or run a check on the quality of data on which decisions are based. They have the liberty of merely signing on the dotted line or just settle for making decisions on their family front – that too as far as situations might permit.

  • Hey Ben, this is good. But at the end of the day, I’m not so sure that it’s internally consistent. Maybe if you were a bit more intellectually honest, it’d be better.

    All the best, Andy.

  • The inclusion of identity into decisionmaking hs a dark side that the president [or any decisionmaker] can be easily manipulated by an appealing frame. I do think this is what happened to Bush 43, as evidenced by how he changed toward Cheney et al by his second term.

    One sees this in Washington as issues are framed in ways that the boss ‘wants to hear.’ That approach includes alignment of the prepackaged decisions [usually 3] including one that has the best alignment of identity, thereby leading the decision.

    While it is easy to say that the POTUS should come in as an outsider and try to shake things up, the framing games are deep, sophisticated, subtle, and difficult to navigate. Newbies can be easily misled by the old hands.

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