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Nobel-Prize winning psychologist: Obama a "slow thinker"

September 11th, 2012
12:09 PM ET

By Samuel Burke

(CNN) - In the United States, two men with two very different approaches to leadership and decision making are vying to become president.

For decades, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has studied thinking processes and the machinery of the mind.

In his latest book, "Thinking, Fast and Slow,” he lays out a school of psychology that groups people in two different modes of thinkers:

System 1: people with minds operate automatically and quickly with little or no effort, and no sense of voluntary control.

System 2: people with minds that allocate attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it; more deliberative.

In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Kahneman said that he is confident that President Obama is a system 2 thinker. 

“He is a slow thinker. He deliberates,” Kahneman said. “He doesn't follow his gut immediately. He considers things. He is very thoughtful.”

Kahneman says the biggest contrast is not between Obama and Romney, but rather between Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush.

“President Bush was proud of acting on his intuition, acting on his gut.”

But Kahneman hypothesizes that Obama and Romney have much more in common than they’d like to admit, at least when it comes to thought processes.

“My guess is that Governor Romney is thoughtful as well, and is slow as well.”

Kahneman’s sense is that on several occasions during his presidency, President Obama has taken so much time to deliberate that it caused his critics to say he’s too slow and dithering.

“People like somebody who acts quickly,” he says. But he adds, “The main thing is they like somebody who does the right thing.”

But if people like a leader who acts quickly, does that mean they end up perceiving quick decisions as being the right ones?

“Not necessarily. In general, I would think that being thoughtful is an advantage over being intuitive. Life is extremely complicated and intuition is not necessarily the best guide to very important decisions.”

So which is it? A quick leader, or a calculated leader?

Kahneman says at the end of the day people do want a leader who will do the right thing, but they also like a particular style.

“And the style they like best is a leader that appears very confident. And part of confidence is speed.”

So a leader must be thoughtful in his or her decisions, but confident enough not to take too much time.

CNN’s Meredith Milstein produced this piece for television.

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Ibrahim Wallee

    The authors analysis is much more confusing than explanatory as it is supposed to be. I think he needs some gust to make a firm analysis of Prez Obama in the context he chose to do it. Good Luck

    September 11, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Reply
  2. Ibrahim Wallee

    I watched Obama speak at the convention the other day in a London hotel, and couldn't help but agree that, he's the sort of President needed in this trying times. There's no second chance to make amends in this era of global politics if you are a leader of a great nation like America....hence the need to be thoughtful. As an individual, one can choose to try his luck, but not as a President of United States of America. American voters are smarter...

    September 11, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Reply
  3. kehinde Bamigbetan

    I am halfway through tis interesting book and was excited to watch the author, Professor Kahneman being interviewed by Amanpour. However, I believe he chose not to be drawn into the elections controversy when he said that Obama and Romney are both slow thinkers. This is a misapplication of his thesis. Obama is a slow thnker but Romney is a fast thinker. How? Take abortion,. Obama offers a new policy tht gives more power to the woman to determine if she wants to abort and offers to legalise abortion when the life of the woman is endangered, This is a product of eliberate, complex thinking process including a review of current thinking and a way out of the challenges of the status quo. Romney stays on the status quo, repeating the jaded argument of the Right and Religion. Romney speaks from intuition, from the gut of dominant opinion. romney is a fast thinker! Take immigration: Obama reviews the challenge posed to the American political economy by illegal immigration. he skims the most youthful and most promising segment of this demographic ( under 20years) and offer reprieve to provide labour for the defence and the economy. this, again, is not ashot from the hip. it demonstrates deep reflection and serious application of intellect. this is slow thinking a la kahneman. and once again, Romney is left to fantasise about anti-immigration that has been the language of officialdom. I mean he offers what has always been on the shelf, from intuition. that is fast thinking!

    September 11, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Reply
    • Adam

      It's a stretch to call Romney a fast-thinker because you can't really be a successful CEO without making calculated thought-out decisions. Romney's problem is he has no backbone, so he caves into extremist views within his own party. Unfortunately for Romney, you can't think your way into growing a sack of real ones.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Reply
    • saintmaxwell

      Well said Kehinde. But I am of the opinion that a "slow thinker" comes out with better decisions.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:43 am | Reply
  4. Alexander

    Spend some time in Boston, where Obama and Romney both spent formative years, but speak slowly, obfuscate, hide from the people waiting for an arduous debate, or more plainly, a straight-out argument.

    September 12, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Reply
  5. Reg

    Prof. Kahnemann takes too much time to come to the conclusion. Too slow for me.

    September 12, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Reply
  6. Reg

    BTW, Romney is not a slow or fast thinker. He is a non-thinker like Bush. Look how he condemned America when our ambassador was killed. That's not thinking, it is stupidity.

    September 12, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Reply
  7. modernagejazz

    Kahneman does not divide people in two groups, but rather says everyone's brain is composed by two such systems. This is a pathetic distortion and I am embarrassed that such an elementary misconception was published here.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Reply
  8. Silver

    I am frankly very surprised that the author and more importantly, Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist fail to make the connection between how "slow vs quick thinkers" stack up depending on different situations. It is not a case of slow thinking being better overall than quick thinking. It is whether the situation calls for slow vs. quick thinking. In my opinion and experience, the best leadership candidate is one who is able to accurately judge the situation and "change gears" from slow to quick or vice versa. I am baffled that CNN, with all its resources and experts, cannot grasp this basic fact that connects psychology with real life demands of leadership.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Reply
    • Adam

      I'm glad someone gets it. The perfect example is Driving a Car vs. Preparing a Presentation. In the former you have real-time constraints that FORCE you to act quickly, and a good driver is one that can judge the situation correctly and act QUICKLY. In the latter you have LOTS OF TIME, like days, to prepare the whole thing and you can think about the questions or problems that can come up, and a good presentation is thought out to suit your audience.

      So yes, it all depends on the situation.

      September 12, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Reply
    • olddorothy

      Silver and Adam should both be hired by CNN, since they obviously understand the real views of Daniel Kahneman, and can articulate them well. That is, if CNN really wants accurate reporting. Especially of late, I have noticed the clear hand of someone at CNN who wishes to spread the conservatives' message, or so it seems to me. The so-called liberal media seems to have disappeared. Even the NY Times is bending over backwards to try to appear unbiased.
      At any rate, to headline this article with a claim that Obama is a slow thinker is a gross distortion of what I take the views of Daniel Kahneman to be. Headlines should provide a mini-glimpse into the story being reported, not a phrase taken out of context for sensational journalism. The average viewer equates "slow" with "retarded", not with deliberative.
      Bad call, CNN editors.

      September 19, 2012 at 12:55 am | Reply
  9. Don Canard

    system 1 just reflects a lack of human development, when that happens, system 2 arises. System 1 also produces brainf4rts and the general level of mediocrity we're surrounded by. Thinking is out of fashion and slightly subversive, being on autopilot is so much less stressful. For example, it's the explanation for what we've been seeing the last 18months as part of the "American electoral process".

    September 26, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Reply
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