News your connection to The Boston Globe

Debatable outcomes

DO YOU THINK John Kerry crushed John Edwards on Super Tuesday because he was simply thinking at a higher level?

According to research by the Requisite Organization International Institute (ROII), you should. The ROII -- a Gloucester-based foundation dedicated to spreading the ideas of a management theorist named Elliott Jaques -- has dramatically announced that they've found the electability X factor. It's called Complexity of Information Processing (CIP).

According to the ROII, CIP has been the decisive factor in nine presidential elections they studied, from the Lincoln-Douglas contest in 1860 to Bush-Gore in 2000. By ROII's measure, this means Kerry will beat Bush in November. Bush, like Edwards, has a CIP of six. Kerry? A seven. In other words, Bush's bully pulpit and bulging campaign war chest are useless. CIP is destiny.

CIP (formerly called Complexity of Mental Processing) is a measure that Elliott Jaques, who died last year, developed while studying organizations ranging from metalwork factories to the US Army. Jaques, who trained as a psychoanalyst and got a doctorate in social relations from Harvard (and, incidentally, coined the term "mid-life crisis"), was a great believer in strict managerial hierarchy and used CIP to measure the capability of workers and managers to assume increasingly complex tasks as they moved up the chain of command. His ideas were not widely adopted, but according to Edgar Schein, an emeritus professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, Jaques was nevertheless "a very important theoretician" in the study of how organizations work.

ROII based its recent prediction on the research of a woman named Alison Brause, who in 2000, as a doctoral candidate in Human Resource Development at the University of Texas, decided to apply Jaques's ideas to presidential politics. According to Brause, since "the Complexity of Mental Processing model is appropriate for analyzing any argument/debate of a position," it needn't just be limited to workplace performance. To prove her point, she looked at the transcripts of debates and interviews from the 1860, 1960, 1976, 1980, 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000 races to determine the candidates' CIPs. (She added the 1984 race for the ROII's current study.)

Brause's findings were more than a little counterintuitive. CIP has two parts, "Orders of Information Complexity" and "Mental Processes." The former measures the level of abstract thinking of which a person is capable on a scale ranging from First Order (an inability to think beyond the realm of concrete entities) to Sixth Order (an ability to think in "universals"). All of the candidates Brause examined were Fourth Order, or "conceptual abstract," thinkers: They could handle terms more than one step removed from a physical entity but couldn't deal with "general principles." When I asked ROII president Kathryn Cason (Jaques's widow and collaborator) to name examples of Sixth Order thinkers, she suggested Einstein and Gandhi.

The second variable, "Mental Processes," describes the complexity of the arguments a person can master. It was on this scale that there was some variation. Candidates either functioned at the Declarative, Cumulative, or Serial Processing levels. A Declarative Processor makes lists of unconnected arguments, a Cumulative Processor builds an accretion of arguments, and a Serial Processor can employ "if . . . then" arguments.

Or, put another way, Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Richard Nixon, Walter Mondale, and both George Bushes -- all Cumulative Processors -- were unable to think in terms of cause and effect, while Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, Jimmy Carter, Stephen A. Douglas, and Gerald Ford -- the Declarative Processors -- weren't even able to link their arguments one to the other. Of the candidates in Brause's original study, only John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were serial processors.

The conclusion that many of the presidential candidates of recent years are simpletons might raise a few eyebrows. (Then again, maybe not.) But on closer examination the ROII study applies the categories in ways that seem all but arbitrary.

For example, take Edwards's statement at an Oct. 9 debate: "First, this is personal for me. My mother is a retired member of the Letter Carriers. My younger and only brother is a member of IBEW Local 553. They have health care because of organized labor." According to Cason, who helped apply Brause's findings to the 2004 race, this is Cumulative Processing, but it's unclear why it wouldn't in fact be Serial Processing, taking into account cause and effect (Edwards's mother and brother are members of unions and therefore they have health care).

In another example, Cason used Bush's Feb. 4 "Meet the Press" appearance to demonstrate why he's a Cumulative Processor, but the excerpts she relied on showed primarily that Bush wasn't making a sustained argument at all, only ducking and weaving from one topic to another.

Then there's the explanation of the three races in which the candidates' CIPs were identical. In Bush vs. Gore, that matches up well with the electoral outcome. But how about Carter-Ford and Clinton-Bush? According to Cason, the age difference between the candidates gave the younger Carter and Clinton an edge, because (as voters presumably can intuit) CIP "matures" inevitably, and arithmetically, with age.

In the end the study looks a lot like social science at its silliest. For one thing, Dennis Kucinich and Carol Moseley Braun both score better than Abraham Lincoln. For another, the study doesn't differentiate between abstract arguments and those that are simply vague (which may help explain Reagan's high score) or between complexity and obfuscation (which may explain Kerry's). Perhaps most bizarrely, it includes the 1860 election while using the Lincoln-Douglas debates from the 1858 Illinois Senate race as its evidence -- even though Lincoln, bearer of the higher CIP (a six, the same as George W.), lost the 1858 race. 19th-century Illinoisans, it seems, didn't put much stock in CIP. Maybe we shouldn't either.

Drake Bennett is a writer living in Cambridge.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives