Biden and Trump may struggle remembering names or intimate details, yet what truly counts in determining their mental fitness for the role is this

Some Americans are questioning the cognitive abilities of seniors like Joe Biden and Donald Trump to hold the presidency amid reports of the politicians swapping names in conversation and experiencing difficulties retrieving past intimate event details.

I hold the stance that these accounts are quite troubling. Nonetheless, judging the mental capabilities of these candidates solely based on critiques that are prominent in the mass media is unwise.

As a cognitive psychologist with expertise in decision-making processes and causal logic, I contend that it’s equally critical to evaluate candidates on cognitive abilities that are essential for managing the intricate duties of leadership roles such as the presidency.

Studies suggest that these abilities largely revolve around decision-making expertise rooted in substantial job-specific knowledge, and while the kinds of slips Biden and Trump do demonstrate grow more frequent with advancing age, this does not necessarily signify that they are unsuitable for the position.

Instinctive vs. reflective decision-making

Decision-making comes in two varieties: instinctive and reflective.

In instinctive decision-making, individuals swiftly and effortlessly identify a convoluted situation and remember an effective resolution from memory. Take for example, doctors’ grasp of the causal links between illnesses and symptoms permits them to rapidly diagnose a complex array of patient symptoms as correlating with a known ailment stored in memory and then recollect efficient treatments.

A plethora of research in areas ranging from healthcare to military command substantiates that it necessitates years – sometimes generations – of intentional targeted practice in one’s specialty to amass the knowledge enabling sound instinctive choices.

Contrary to the facility and rapidity of instinctive decisions, the most intricate decisions – such as those a president faces – demand methodical deliberation and cognitive effort at every phase of the decision process. These are the defining characteristics of reflective decision-making.

For instance, a contemplative strategy to devising an immigration legislation might begin with causal analysis to comprehend the myriad elements causing the contemporary surge at the border and the various impacts of immigration. Subsequently, formulating prospective bills might entail mediating among diverse groups of policymakers and interested parties with different principles and ambitions, such as decreasing undocumented immigrants while also treating them with compassion. Finally, deciding upon a course of action involves anticipating how suggested measures will impact each goal, navigating value dilemmas and oftentimes additional compromise.

Psychological experts who delve into these subjects are in agreement that individuals require three essential cognitive dispositions – termed as “ proactively open-minded thinking” or “insightful reasoning” – for competent reflective decision-making:

  • Open-mindedness: Possessing an open-minded outlook signifies welcoming all potential options and goals pertinent to a decision, despite any personal belief conflicts.

  • Calibrated confidence: This skill involves articulating sureness about a prediction or decision in probabilistic terms, rather than absolute certainties. Substantial confidence is warranted only when evidence has been assessed according to reliability and when supportive facts significantly outweigh the contradictory.

  • Teamwork: This prescription highlights the importance of welcoming various perspectives within one’s advising circle and from stakeholders with differing viewpoints.

Leaders are required to employ both instinctual and methodical approaches to decision-making. The competent execution of minor choices through instinctual methods liberates time to focus on more intricate issues. Nonetheless, the choices that define the legacy of a leader are typically intricate and fraught with far-reaching implications, such as strategies to combat global warming or mitigate global disputes. In these scenarios, methodical thinking is imperative.

Proficient instinctual and methodical decisions both necessitate profound occupational knowledge. During phases of methodical thinking, individuals generally exploit cognitive understanding of the world that is mindfully reachable, often alluded to as semantic memory. Awareness of subjects like levies, the chronicles of the Middle East, and strategies for diplomacy enables leaders to rapidly assimilate novel events and comprehend their subtleties. It also supports their crucial role of explicating their choices to those who disagree and the citizenry.

Interpretations of memory lapses and verbal blunders

Biden has received scrutiny for not retaining memories of his own historical experiences. Such lapses pertain to episodic memory, which enables our conscious retrieval of personal encounters.

However, neurologists concur that Biden’s slips in episodic memory fall within ordinary parameters of healthy aging and that the intimate particulars of one’s life bear little relevance to presidential duties. That’s because episodic memory is separate from the semantic memory and instinctual cognizance vital to adept decision-making.

Name confusions, occasionally made by figures like Biden and Trump, are not likely to impede their capabilities. Instead, they merely signify a brief misstep in retrieving information from semantic memory. Ordinarily, even when such slips occur, individuals still comprehend the underlying principles pertinent to their navigation through life and career responsibilities, ensuring their semantic knowledge remains unharmed.

president biden sits on a chair with other men in suits on couches in an oval room in the White Housepresident biden sits on a chair with other men in suits on couches in an oval room in the White House

Navigating intricate choices in later years

As we use an abundance of concepts daily to maneuver through our environment, our semantic understanding typically remains stable well into our nonagenarian years. This knowledge is housed in the posterior portions of the brain that decline at a comparatively moderate pace due to aging.

Studies indicate that since instinctual choices are refined through extensive repetition, seasoned professionals can sustain prominent performance in their domains so long as they continue their practice and usage of abilities. Similar to semantic memory, experts’ instinctual decision faculties are managed by posterior cerebral regions that are less prone to the effects of aging.

Yet, for these seasoned professionals to keep up their previous prowess, they are required to dedicate a more substantial amount of practice in comparison to younger counterparts.

The cognitive propensities that are integral to methodical thinking are shaped through initial social learning;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas” class=”link “>are shaped through initial social learning, inclusive of formal education. Consequently, they become ingrained habits, capturing the typical methodologies people apply in making choices.commonly render decisions.

Indications are arising that traits such as receptiveness to new ideas tend not to diminish appreciably and sometimes may even enhance with advancing years. Exploring this notion, I examined the association between receptiveness to new ideas and age, whilst adjusting for educational attainment, by analysing data from 5,700 participants in the 2016 British Election Study. The statistical examination revealed that individuals between 26 and 88 exhibited comparable levels of receptiveness to new ideas, whereas those with higher education exhibited greater openness.

Applying this to the contenders

Regarding the 2024 presidential contenders, Biden boasts a wealth of governmental understanding and expertise from over 44 years in public service and meticulously scrutinizes and deliberates on a multitude of perspectives with his advisory team prior to making a resolution.

In contrast, Trump possesses considerably less governmental tenure. He proclaims his ability for instinctive decision-making in a domain where he is less informed by employing “street smarts” and asserts that his judgments are often more precise than those of informed specialists. This assertion stands in opposition to the studies indicating that significant occupation-specific proficiency and knowledge are imperative for intuitive decisions to be reliably sound.

From my overall assessment of the information at hand, it seems that both candidates exhibit signs of proficient and deficient decision-making capabilities. Nonetheless, I am persuaded that Biden frequently demonstrates the thoughtful traits indicative of sound decision-making, whereas Trump does so with lesser frequency.

Thus, when attempting to determine whether the age of the candidates should influence your vote, it seems prudent to largely disregard concerns about the confusion of names and failure to recall personal stories. Instead, consider which candidate retains the crucial cognitive abilities necessary for complex decision-making – that is, a comprehensive understanding of political dynamics as well as decision-making traits like receptiveness to new ideas, matching confidence with evidence, and receptivity to challenges from advisers and dissenters.

Science cannot establish definite predictions regarding individuals. Nonetheless, research hints that once these abilities have been cultivated, they generally do not wane noticeably even with substantial aging, provided they are actively engaged.

This writing is repurposed from The Conversation, a non-profit, autonomous journalism entity presenting you with factual analyses and trustworthy insights to navigate our intricate world. It is authored by: Leo Gugerty, Clemson University

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Leo Gugerty is associated with Braver Angels, a bipartisan organization that endeavors to mitigate political polarization by fostering capabilities for respectful disagreement.

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