Biden and Trump may forget names or personal details, but here’s what really matters when assessing whether they’re cognitively fit for the job

Some Americans are questioning whether elders like Joe Biden and Donald Trump are cognitively competent to be president, amid reports that the candidates mix up names while speaking and have difficulty remembering details of past personal events.

I think these reports are clearly concerning. However, it is problematic to judge the candidates’ knowledge solely on the basis of the criticisms that have gained traction in the popular press.

I am a cognitive psychologist who studies decision-making and causal reasoning. I argue that it is equally important to assess candidates on the cognitive capabilities actually required to perform a complex leadership role such as the presidency.

Research shows that these abilities mainly involve decision-making skills based on extensive job-related knowledge, and that the types of mistakes made by Biden and Trump increase with age, but that does not mean that either candidate is unfit for office.

Intuitive versus informed decision making

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

In 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 allows them to quickly recognize a complex set of patient symptoms as corresponding to a known disease stored in memory, and then recall effective treatments.

A large body of research in areas from medicine to military leadership shows that it takes years – and often decades – of effort and deliberate practice in one’s field to build the knowledge that makes effective intuitive decisions possible.

In contrast to the ease and speed of intuitive decisions, the most complex decisions – often the kind a president faces – require conscious deliberation and mental effort at every stage of the decision-making process. These are the characteristics of deliberative decision-making.

For example, a thoughtful approach to crafting an immigration law might begin with causal reasoning to understand the many factors influencing 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 who have diverse values ​​and goals, such as reducing the number of undocumented immigrants, as well as treating them humanely. Finally, making a choice requires predicting how the proposed solutions will impact each objective, involving value trade-offs and often further negotiation.

Psychological scientists who study these topics agree that people need three major thinking abilities – sometimes called “active open-minded thinking” or “sensible reasoning” – for effective informed decision-making:

  • Open-mindedness: Open-mindedness means considering all choices and objectives relevant to a decision, even if they conflict with one’s own beliefs.

  • Calibrated confidence: This is the ability to express confidence in a particular prediction or choice in terms of probabilities rather than certainties. One should have high confidence only when the evidence has been weighed according to its credibility and the supporting evidence far outweighs the opposing evidence.

  • Teamwork: this involves seeking alternative perspectives within one’s own advisory team and among stakeholders with conflicting interests.

Presidents must use both intuitive and informed decision-making. The ability to make smaller decisions effectively using intuitive decision making frees up time to focus on larger ones. However, the decisions that make or break a president are extremely complex and have major consequences, such as how to deal with climate change or international conflicts. This is where deliberative decision-making is most needed.

Effective intuitive and informed decisions both depend on extensive work-related knowledge. Particularly during deliberative decision-making, people use conceptual knowledge of the world that is consciously accessible, commonly called semantic memory. Knowledge of concepts such as tariffs, Middle East history and diplomatic strategies allows 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 about forgetfulness and word confusion

Biden has been criticized for not remembering details of his personal past. This is an error in episodic memory, which is responsible for our ability to consciously remember personal experiences.

However, neurologists 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 a president’s job. That’s because episodic memory is distinct from the semantic memories and intuitive knowledge that are crucial for good decision-making.

Mixing up names, as Biden and Trump occasionally do, is also unlikely to impact job performance. Rather, it involves a temporary error in retrieving information from semantic memory. When people make this common mistake, they usually still understand the concepts underlying the swapped names, so the semantic knowledge that helps them manage life and work remains intact.

President Biden sits on a chair with other men in suits on couches in an oval room in the White House

Making complex decisions as you get older

Because we all use a large number of concepts every day to navigate the world, our semantic knowledge generally does not decline with age and persists at least until the age of 90. This knowledge is stored in the posterior brain areas that deteriorate relatively slowly with age.

Research shows that because intuitive decision making is learned through extensive practice, 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, experts’ intuitive decision-making is controlled by posterior brain areas that are less affected by aging.

However, older experts need more practice than younger ones to maintain previous skills.

The thinking attitudes essential for deliberative decision-making are influenced by early social learning, including education. They thus become habits, stable characteristics that record how people usually make decisions.

There is increasing evidence that dispositions such as open-mindedness do not decrease much 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. A statistical analysis found that individuals aged 26 to 88 years had a very similar level of open-mindedness, while those with higher education were more open-minded.

Apply this to the candidates

As for the 2024 presidential candidates, Biden has extensive knowledge and experience in politics from more than 44 years in political office. He thoroughly researches and discusses various points of view with his advisors before reaching a decision.

Trump, on the other hand, has significantly less experience in politics. He claims that he can make intuitive decisions in an area where he has no knowledge by using “common sense” and still be more accurate than expert experts. This statement contradicts the research showing that extensive job-specific experience and knowledge are necessary for intuitive decisions to be consistently effective.

My general interpretation of everything I’ve read about this is that both candidates exhibit aspects of good and bad decision making. However, I believe that Biden regularly demonstrates the deliberative spirit that characterizes good decision-making, while Trump does so less often.

So if you’re trying to judge how or whether the age of the candidates should influence your vote, I think you should mostly ignore concerns about mixing up names and not evoking personal memories. Instead, ask yourself which candidate has the key cognitive abilities needed to make complex decisions. That is, knowledge of political matters and a decision-making mindset, such as open-mindedness, matching trust to evidence, and a willingness to have your thinking challenged by advisors and critics.

Science cannot make firm predictions about individuals. However, the research shows that once a leader has developed these capabilities, they tend not to diminish much, even with increasing age, as long as they are actively used.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit organization providing facts and trusted analysis to help you understand 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 dedicated to reducing political polarization by teaching civil discord skills.

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