In a series of Medium articles, my colleagues and I have been examining the complexity level of national leaders’ thinking — with a newly validated electronic developmental assessment system called CLAS. Since I posted the second article in this series, which focused on the thinking of recent U. S. presidents, I’ve been asked several times to say more about what complexity scores mean and why they matter.
So, here goes. To keep it simple (or a simple as a discussion of complexity can be), I’m going to limit myself to an exploration of the complexity scores of Presidents Trump (mean score = 1054) and Obama, (mean score = 1163).
If you are unfamiliar with complexity levels, I recommend that you start by watching the short video, below. It provides a general explanation of developmental levels that will help get you oriented.
Adult complexity zones
If you’ve read the previous articles in this series (recommended), you’ve already seen the figure below. It shows the four complexity “zones” that are most common in adulthood and describes them in terms of the kinds of perspectives people performing in each zone are likely to be able to work with effectively. The first zone, advanced linear thinking, is the most common among adults in the United States. It’s also fairly common in the later years of high school—though early linear thinking (not shown here) is more common in that age range.
As development progresses, knowledge and thought move through levels of increasing complexity. Each level builds upon the previous level, which means we have to pass through all of the levels in sequence. Skipping a level is impossible, because a level can’t be built unless there is an earlier level to build upon. As we move through these levels, the evidence of earlier levels does not disappear. It leaves traces in language that can be represented as a kind of history of a person’s development. We call this a developmental profile. To produce a score, CLAS’s algorithm compares an individual’s developmental profile to the typical profiles for each possible score on the complexity scale. Right now, the CLAS algorithm is based on 20 years of rigorous research involving over 45,000 scored interviews, observations, and assessments.
In the second article of this series, I reported that President Trump’s average score (1054) was in the advanced linear thinking zone. Thinking in this zone is abstract and linear. People performing in this zone link ideas in chains of (more or less) logical relations. Reasoning has a “black and white” quality, in the sense that there is a strong preference for simple correct or incorrect answers. Although individuals performing in this level can often see that a situation or problem involves multiple factors, the only way they can organize their thinking about these factors is in chains of logical statements, usually with an “if, then” structure. President Trump, in his interview with The Wall Street Journal on the 25th of July, 2017, provided a typical “if, then” argument when asked about trade with the UK. He argued:
…we’re going to have a very good relationship with the U.K. And we do have to talk to the European Union, because it’s not a reciprocal deal, you know. The word reciprocal, to me, is very important. For instance, we have countries that charge us 100 percent tax to sell a Harley-Davidson into that country. And yet, they sell their motorcycles to us, or their bikes, or anything comparable, and we charge them nothing. There has to be a reciprocal deal. I’m all about that.
The complexity level of an argument can be seen in its structure and the meanings embedded in that structure. This argument has an “if, then” structure, and points to the meaning of reciprocity, which for the President seems to mean an equal exchange—”If you tax at a certain level, then we should tax at that level too.” This kind of “tit for tat” thinking is common in level 10 and below. It’s also a form of thinking that disappears above level 10. For example, in level 11, an individual would be more likely to argue, “It’s more complex than that. There are other considerations that need to be taken into account, like the impact a decision like this is is likely to have on international relations or our citizens’ buying power.” President Trump, in his response, does not even mention additional considerations. This is one of the patterns in his responses that contributed to the score awarded by CLAS.
In the results reported here, a Democrat scored higher than a Republican. We have no reason to believe that conservative thinking is inherently less complex than liberal thinking. In fact, in the past, we have identified highly complex thinking in both conservative and liberal leaders.
A couple of side notes
Upon reading President Trump’s statement above, you may have noticed that, without any framing or context, the President jumped to a discussion of reciprocity. This lack of framing is a ubiquitous feature of President Trump’s arguments. I did not mention it in my discussion of complexity because it is not a direct indicator of thinking complexity. It’s more strongly connected to logical coherence, which correlates with complexity but is not fully explained by complexity.
I’d also like to note that it was difficult to find a single argument in President Trump’s interviews that contained an actual explanation. When asked to explain a position, President Trump was far more likely to (1) tell a story, (2) deride someone, (3) point out his own fame or popularity, or (3) claim that another perspective was a lie or fake news. These were the main ways in which he “backed up” his opinions. Like the absence of framing, these behaviors are not direct indicators of thinking complexity, though they may be correlated with complexity. They are more strongly related to disposition, values, and personality.
These flaws in President Trump’s thinking, combined with the complexity level of his interview responses, should raise considerable alarm. If the President Trump we see is showing us his best thinking—and a casual examination of other examples of his thinking suggests that this is likely to be the case—he clearly lacks the thinking skills demanded by his role. In fact, mid-level management roles generally require better thinking skills than those demonstrated by President Trump.
President Obama’s mean score (1163) was in the advanced systems thinking zone. Thinking in this zone is multivariate and non-linear. People performing in this zone link ideas in complex webs of relations, connecting these webs of relations to one another through common elements. For example, they view individuals as complex webs of traits & behaviors, and groups of individuals as complex webs that include not only the intersections of the webs of their members, but their own distinct properties. Thinking in this zone is very different from thinking in the advanced linear thinking zone. Where individuals performing in the advanced linear thinking zone are concerned about immediate outcomes and proximal causes, individuals performing in the advanced systems thinking zone concern themselves with long term outcomes and systemic causes. Here is an example from President Obama’s interview with the New York Times on March 7th, 2009, in which he explains his approach to economic recovery following the onset of the great recession:
…people have been concerned, understandably, about the decline in the market. Well, the reason the market’s declining is because the economy’s declining and it’s generating a lot of bad news, not surprisingly. And so what I’m focused on is fixing the underlying economy. That’s ultimately what’s going to fix the markets. …in the interim you’ve got some folks who would love to see us artificially prop up the market by just putting in more taxpayer money, which in the short term could make bank balance sheets look better, make creditors and bondholders and shareholders of these financial institutions feel better and you could get a little blip. But we’d be in the exact same spot as we were six, eight, 10 months [ago]. So, what I’ve got to do is make sure that we’re focused on the underlying economy, and … if we do that well …we’re going to get this economy moving again. And I think over the long term we’re going to be much better off.
Rather than offering a pre-determined solution or focusing a single element of the economic crisis, President Obama anchors on the economic system as a system, advocating a comprehensive long-term solution rather than band-aid solutions that might offer some positive immediate results, but would be likely to backfire in the long term. Appreciating that the economic situation presents “a very complex set of problems,” he employs a decision-making process that is “constantly… guided by evidence, facts, talking through all the best arguments, drawing from all the best perspectives, and then talking the best course of action possible.”
The complexity level of president Obama’s thinking as represented in the press interviews analyzed for our study, is a reasonable fit for high office. Of course, we were not able to determine if his scores in this context represent his full capabilities. An informal examination of some of his written work suggests that the “true” complexity level of his thinking may be even higher.
Thinking complexity is not the only factor that plays a role in a president’s success. As president, Obama experienced both successes and failures, and as is usually the case, it’s difficult to say to what extent his solutions contributed to these successes or failures. But, even in the face of this uncertainty, isn’t it a no brainer that a complex problem that’s adequately understood is more likely to be resolved than a complex problem that’s not even recognized?
In his interview with the Wall Street Journal, President Trump claimed that Barack Obama, “didn’t know what the hell he was doing.” Our results suggest that it may be President Trump who doesn’t know what Obama was doing.
Other articles in this series
- The complexity of national leaders’ thinking: How does it measure up?
- The complexity of national leaders’ thinking: U.S. Presidents