Biden and Trump may forget names or personal details, but this is what really matters in assessing whether they are cognitively up for the job.

Some Americans are questioning whether elderly people like Joe Biden and Donald Trump are cognitively competent to be president amid reports of the candidates mixing up names while speaking and having difficulty detailing personal events in the past. remembered past.

I believe these reports are clearly a cause for concern. However, it is problematic to assess the cognition of the candidates based only on the reviews that have gained traction in those media.

I am a cognitive psychologist who studies decision making and causal reasoning. I argue that it is equally important to assess candidates for the cognitive resources needed to perform a complex leadership position such as the presidency.

Research shows that these abilities are primarily related to decision-making skills based on extensive job-related knowledge, and that the types of errors that Biden and Trump make increase with age, but that does not mean that either candidate is unsuitable for the office.

Intuitive decision making vs decision making

There are two types of decision making: intuitive and reflective.

With intuitive decision making, people quickly and easily recognize a complex situation and recall an effective solution from memory. For example, physicians’ knowledge of how diseases and symptoms are causally related enables them to quickly recognize a patient’s complex set of symptoms as a known disease stored in memory and then recall effective treatments.

A large body of research in fields from medicine to military leadership shows that it takes years – and often decades – of painstaking, deliberate practice in the human field to develop the knowledge that allows for effective intuitive decisions.

In contrast to the ease and speed of intuitive decisions, the most complex decisions – often the types that face a president – ​​require conscious deliberation and mental effort at every stage of the decision-making process. These are the hallmarks of considered decision making.

For example, a deliberative approach to creating an immigration bill might begin with causal reasoning to understand the multiple factors affecting the current border surge and the positive and negative effects of immigration. Then, generating potential bills may involve negotiations among multiple groups of decision makers and stakeholders with different values ​​and objectives, such as reducing the number of undocumented immigrants but also treating them humanely. Finally, making a choice requires forecasting the impact of proposed solutions on each objective, dealing with value trade-offs and often further negotiations.

Psychological scientists who study these topics agree that people need three main mindsets – called “active open thinking” or “wise reasoning” – for effective reflective decision-making:

  • Open-mindedness: Being open-minded means considering all the options and objectives involved in a decision, even if they conflict with one’s own beliefs.

  • Calibrated confidence: This is the ability to express confidence in a particular forecast or option in terms of probabilities rather than certainties. One should only have high confidence where evidence has been weighted based on its credibility and supporting evidence is more important than opposing evidence.

  • Teamwork: This involves seeking alternative views from the advisory team itself and from stakeholders with conflicting interests.

Presidents must use intuitive and reflective decision-making. The ability to make smaller decisions effectively by using intuitive decision making frees up time to focus on bigger ones. However, the decisions that make or break a president are extremely complex and highly consequential, such as how to deal with climate change or international conflicts. This is where judicial decision-making is most needed.

Effective, intuitive and considered decisions rely on extensive job-related knowledge. Particularly during deliberative decision-making, people use consciously accessible conceptual knowledge of the world, commonly known as semantic memory. Knowledge of concepts such as tariffs, Middle Eastern history and diplomatic strategies enables presidents to quickly grasp new developments and understand their nuances. It also helps them fulfill an important job requirement: explaining their decisions to political opponents and the public.

What to do about forgetting and mixing up words

Biden was criticized for not recalling details of his personal history. This is an error in episodic memory, which is responsible for our ability to consciously recall personal experiences.

However, neuroscientists agree that Biden’s episodic memory errors are within the range of normal, healthy aging and that the details of a person’s personal life are not particularly relevant to the job of president. That’s because episodic memory is distinct from the semantic memories and intuitive knowledge that are critical to good decision-making.

Mixing names, as Biden and Trump occasionally do, is unlikely to affect job performance. Rather, it simply involves a momentary error in retrieving information from semantic memory. When people make this common error, they usually still understand the concepts behind the mixed names, so the semantic knowledge that helps them cope with life and work is intact.

President Biden sits in a chair with other men in suits on beds in the Oval Office of the White House

Making complex decisions as you get older

Because each of us uses a multitude of concepts to navigate the world every day, our semantic knowledge usually does not decline with age, lasting until at least age 90.

Research shows that since extensive practice teaches intuitive decision making, older experts are able to maintain high performance in their field as long as they continue to use and practice their skills. As with semantic memory, the intuitive decision-making of experts is controlled by posterior brain regions that are less vulnerable to aging.

However, older experts need to apply more practice than younger ones to maintain previous skill levels.

Early social learning, including education, influences the mindsets that are critical to deliberative decision-making. Thus, habits become stable characteristics that reflect how people usually make decisions.

There is emerging evidence that attitudes such as open-mindedness do not decline significantly and sometimes even increase with age. To investigate this, I looked at how well open-mindedness correlated with age, while controlling for education level, using data from 5,700 people in the 2016 British Election Study. Statistical analysis showed that individuals aged 26 to 88 had very similar levels of open-mindedness, and those with more education had more open-mindedness.

Apply this to the candidates

Regarding the 2024 presidential candidates, Biden has extensive knowledge and experience in politics from more than 44 years in political office and thoroughly investigates and discusses various viewpoints with his advisers before reaching a decision.

In contrast, Trump has far less experience in politics. He claims that he can make intuitive decisions in an area where he lacks knowledge by using “common sense” and be even more accurate than knowledgeable experts. This claim is at odds with research showing that extensive job-specific experience and knowledge is necessary for intuitive decisions to be consistently effective.

My overall interpretation of everything I’ve read about this is that both candidates show elements of both good and poor decision making. However, I believe that Biden regularly exhibits the deliberative attitudes that characterize good decision-making, while Trump does this less often.

So, if you’re trying to figure out how the age of the candidates would affect your vote, I believe you should mostly ignore the concerns about mixing up names and not memories to recall personal. Instead, ask yourself which candidate has the key cognitive abilities to make complex decisions. That is, political knowledge as well as decision-making dispositions such as open-mindedness, calibrating trust to evidence, and a willingness to challenge your ideas to advisors and critics.

Science cannot make firm predictions about individuals. However, the research suggests that once these resources are developed by a leader, they usually do not diminish much even with age, as long as they are actively used.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit, independent news organization that brings you reliable facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by Leo Gugerty Clemson University

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Leo Gugerty is affiliated with Braver Angels, a cross-party group that works to reduce political polarization by teaching civil disobedience skills.

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