Monday, November 06, 2017

Ready, Fire, Aim!

My academic training wasn’t in psychology, so I’m guessing some of my wise and worldly readers have much more understanding of this than I do.  I hope they can shed some light.

There’s a personality type that prizes confident and quick decisiveness over thinking.  I think of it as the “ready, fire, aim” personality, though I’m sure there’s a scientific term for it.  (“Shoot from the lip” works, too.)  It’s the type that, when confronted with something it doesn’t understand, immediately assumes that the thing is either evil or stupid.  This type sees dark blacks and bright whites, holding grays in deep suspicion when it notices them at all.  

For reasons I don’t entirely grasp, many people register that type as showing “leadership.”  

It’s a type that can do tremendous damage in both obvious and subtle ways.

The obvious ways are, well, obvious: sweeping declarations based on miniscule knowledge, blunt instruments applied to complicated problems, and a style of discussion that favors bluster over evidence.  The subtle ways can be more damaging over time, though.  People with knowledge of the grays of a situation often learn, over time, that it’s not worth the battle, so they stop bringing it up; gradually, discussions get dumber.  Worse, decisions start getting made based not on what’s best, but on what’s likely to provoke a reaction.  People start playing the game of “what’s the most negative possible way this could be portrayed?,” and working backwards from there; the bandwidth devoted to that is diverted from actually improving ideas.  

If you’re the sort that takes ideas seriously, the greatest sin of the “ready, fire, aim” personality is its staggering inconsistency.  If today’s gut reaction contradicts yesterday’s, well, who remembers yesterday’s, anyway?  

At a previous career stop, I had the experience of reporting to someone whose memory and executive function gradually declined.  He became a “ready, fire, aim” type as his ability to grasp nuance or remember what was said the week before started to slip.  It was hard to endure, because it took a while to realize what was happening.  As his understanding grew shallower, his reactions became more impulsive.  The whole atmosphere soured.

But some folks are like that without the excuse of mental decline.  

President Obama used to catch flak for his habit of pausing when he spoke, but I liked it.  In his case, it was because he was thinking.  Thinking before speaking struck me as an endearing habit in a leader, particularly one in charge of a nuclear arsenal.  Say what you want about his policy choices, but he was consistently good about keeping impulsive reactions in check and speaking in paragraphs.  I think of that as the right kind of temperament for a leader.

Jessica Valenti had a good piece in the Guardian a few days ago asking whether, as she put it, “abusive men aren’t rising to the top in spite of their disdain for women, but because of it.”  What she calls “domineering bravado” sometimes manifests in sexual harassment, but -- as bad as that is -- it’s only one form of domination.  They abuse power, whether economic, political, physical, or sexual.  

And yet, they keep getting power.  That’s the part I still struggle to understand.  As transparent as many of them are -- honestly, it’s not hard to spot -- they keep receiving deference.  Domineering bravado often works.  That’s the mystery.

So, wise and worldly readers, I wind up with two questions.  Is there a clinical term for this type?  And why does it keep getting rewarded?