Why big shots are often close-minded

won't listen to good ideas

A series of experiments (see note #1) reported in the journal Psychological Science sheds light on why powerful people often seem so stubbornly unreceptive to new ideas and hence unwilling to listen to people with them. The upshot of the research is that power—or even the illusion of it—can lead people to grossly overestimate their abilities and inflate their self-esteem. The perception of power can thus “go to one's head.” Powerful people also tend to possess an exaggerated sense of control.

The ability to accurately perceive reality is key to enhancing success and survival, in terms of both evolution and individual lives. Not accurately perceiving reality is incredibly nonadaptive. Gross distortions of the perception of reality occurs in certain psychoses. Some “crazy” people experience hallucinations and delusions that distort their perception of reality and hence are nonadaptive. However, even subtler distortions of reality can produce negative effects. From the standpoint of biology and psychology, the most adaptive beliefs are the ones that most closely comport with reality. Thus, the most adaptive individuals have the most accurate sense of their abilities, neither minimizing them (e.g., people with poor self-esteem) nor overestimating them (e.g., Presidents who know virtually nothing about economics yet think they can solve our economic crisis).

When I worked as an attending ER doctor in a teaching hospital, one of my responsibilities was to supervise resident physicians in the emergency department. I quickly learned that the most dangerous doctors aren't the ones who didn't know something, but the ones who didn't know and wouldn't admit it. If they didn't know, I could teach them. If they told me they knew how to do something (start a central IV line, repair a laceration, intubate, defibrillate, etc.) but really didn't know what the heck they were doing, they could do a lot of damage. I walked in one room and found the resident had defibrillated the patient so many times at such short intervals that the room smelled like a summer barbeque.

Obama fans: Reading Comment #206 (below) will likely keep you from blowing a fuse, thinking this article isn't fair.

When I think of the dangers of people who purposely camouflage their ignorance, I think of Barack Obama. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Obama did nothing to dispel the notion that he is some sort of a once-in-a-lifetime genius—a political Einstein, in other words. However, as an ER doctor with years of experience rapidly assessing the mental status of patients, I knew that Obama was smart, but hardly a genius. His vaunted ability to give speeches is attributable to a flair for reading a teleprompter. In fact, he used that teleprompter crutch to introduce a Cabinet nominee. Why would a genius need a teleprompter to give such a short introductory speech? And why would a genius refuse to release his college records? Might the genius have flunked Economics?

In early March 2009, Obama revealed how little he knows about economics by saying, “What you’re now seeing is, profit and earning ratios are starting to get to the point where buying stocks is a potentially good deal if you've got a long-term perspective on it.”

Ahem. Even folks who received a D– in Economics 101 know that P/E ratios refer to price-to-earnings ratios, not profit and earnings ratios! This degree of ignorance is like a doctor not knowing what penicillin is, or a builder not knowing what a 2x4 is—it's simply unfathomable! If Obama doesn't know Econ 101 basics, do you think he knows enough to end our economic crisis?

Imagine that you took your young daughter to the ER after she developed a high fever, severe headache, and a new-onset seizure. If most of what the doctor said indicated that she knew little about pediatric emergency medicine, you'd want another doctor, stat. Millions of people who voted for Obama now wish they could change their vote because the President clearly doesn't know how to rescue the economy, nor has he mastered Economics 101. Isn't it odd how people wouldn't tolerate a doctor who was similarly ignorant, yet they put up with a President in dire need of remedial education?

President Obama has enormous power, and it's gone to his head. He is grossly overestimating his abilities. He doesn't know Econ 101 basics, yet he is trying to delude us into thinking that he has The Right Stuff to tinker with our economy without making a bad situation even worse.

Doctors cannot practice medicine without passing many examinations. It's too bad that politicians are not held to the same standard. They can wield far more power even when they don't really know what they're doing. If they sound good, as Obama does, they can enthrall people with their style, but style will not solve this crisis.

Let's return to the ER. Your daughter is still seizing. She's becoming increasingly blue. You scream, “I want another doctor in here NOW!

not doctor
You wouldn't choose a doctor because she looked great in a mini-skirt, so why should voters elect politicians because of their style?

Now imagine that a nurse tries to soothe your anger by touting not the qualifications of the ER doctor, but her style. “Hey, you're a man. Don't you just love how her spiffy mini-skirt reveals so much of her luscious legs? And what about her lovely smile? Or her shiny blonde hair?”

If a nurse said anything even half that daffy in such a circumstance, your rage would skyrocket, and rightfully so. Similarly, the Americans who care about substance over style are livid about the inexplicable and even offensive priorities of American voters whose love affair with style put an incompetent captain at the helm of a ship that is navigating very treacherous waters.


  1. Fast et al. Illusory Control: A Generative Force Behind Power's Far-Reaching Effects. Psychological Science, 2009; DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02311.x
  2. Free the Idea Monkey (great site and book)
  3. Brand New: Solving the Innovation Paradox -- How Great Brands Invent and Launch New Products, Services, and Business Models
  4. Oreck bankruptcy: Company looking for a buyer, files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy
    Comment: David Oreck is admirable, savvy, and very smart, and I don't know if he is too close-minded to consider inventions from independent inventors, but most companies are, and rarely can any company find all the innovation it needs within its ranks. It's too bad he doesn't know about my vacuum cleaner invention that would permit him to leave all competitors in the dust.
The views expressed on this page may or may not reflect my current opinions, nor do they necessarily represent my past ones. After reading a slice of what I wrote in my various websites and books, you may conclude that I am a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican. Wrong; there is a better alternative. Just as the primary benefit from debate classes results when students present and defend opinions contrary to their own, I use a similar strategy as a creative writing tool to expand my brainpower—and yours. Mystified? Stay tuned for an explanation. PS: The wheels in your head are already turning a bit faster, aren't they?

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Reference: Imagining dialogue can boost critical thinking: Excerpt: “Examining an issue as a debate or dialogue between two sides helps people apply deeper, more sophisticated reasoning …”

Comments (1)

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Comment #206 by Anonymous
March 2 2012 09:09:02 PM

What about Bush?

It's one thing to criticize Obama, but his predecessor showed a deliberate and willful ignorance to accept new ideas -- even going so far as to wear his ignorance and arrogance as though it were a badge of honor. To give Bush a pass but to criticize Obama smacks of hypocrisy, or pro-Republican bias. If you admonish one, you must treat the other equally.

REPLY FROM KEVIN PEZZI: You raise a good point. Bush was—and likely always will be—about as open to new ideas as Casey Anthony is open to discussing her guilt. I loathe close-mindedness, so I'm no fan of Bush, but I was politically asleep during most of his presidency. Furthermore, during those years, I was a staunch Republican, so I was inclined to give Republicans a pass. If you read some of my recent blog postings, you'll see that Republicans no longer enjoy that immunity with me; I figuratively give 'em both barrels.

Every article I write is a snapshot of my opinions at that time, but many of my opinions have changed substantially since I wrote them. I update some if I have time when I stumble across something I previously wrote that I now strongly disagree with, but I don't have time to keep every opinion updated. I have dozens of websites and several hundred web pages, some of which are as long as a book. Add that to the many books I've written (and am writing), and the many other things I'm involved in, and there just isn't enough time to do even 10% of what I'd like to do.

BTW, as an example of my political metamorphosis, see my article blasting Fox News. I'm not through with them yet.

Now that I am more open-minded, I agree with some liberal opinions I once pilloried with a passion, and I even have some nice things to say about Obama (for example, read my article explaining why he's not a socialist).

I am not anti-Obama. Some of what he does is truly impressive, such as signing the JOBS Act that enables business financing via crowdfunding.

I understand Obama's appeal but I also understand why he riles his detractors. Frankly, he gives them lots of ammo to blast him. He tries to cover his tracks with lame excuses such as pretending he's just a bystander who doesn't know what people in his Administration are doing until he reads about it in the papers, but the ones he fools are just that. I'd prefer an Obama more secure in himself so he can proudly tout his achievements while not feeling the need to camouflage his mistakes. I've yet to hear of any great person who was perfect or nearly so. People who don't raise eyebrows in church generally don't do anything great. There's a reason for that.

The fans who always support Obama aren't doing him a favor. Without them, and without his extensive network of paid-to-smear bloggers, he would feel a burning need to do even more than he has, and he would deliver it. The potential of most people remains latent until it is unleashed by a painful but potent weapon: ridicule. As I discussed in an article, social rejection fuels motivation. Research supports that conclusion, and I've seen the truth of it in my life, comfortably on cruise control and wasting 99% of my talent until a fire was lit under me.

President Obama hit a home run by signing the JOBS Act, but he could hit a grand slam that won the World Series by introducing a reform that would save the United States while thrilling his enemies, not just his supporters. I introduced that idea years ago and no one has yet found any fault in it other than suggesting that some politicians may not like it because they like controlling us more than helping us. My plan would be wildly popular with liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between, from the Tea Party to the Give Me More party.

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