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Kevin J. Fleming, Ph.D. Headshot

A Washington D.C. Fairytale: A Psychological Profile of a Supreme Court Justice?

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Once upon a time, in the wake of the impending nomination of Elana Kagan and the slew of email communications being released, townspeople began to wonder: What is the process or criteria of evaluation for assessing the email content? ....

But as with all fanciful ideas, we do wake up from fairytales and get hit by reality despite our desire to make things understandable and rational. And in this delusionally rational part of me, I guess I am wondering -- Is there an "ideal email" that would make one undoubtedly say this is one for the representation of pure reason to guide America's legal quagmires? If not, what constitutes the type of human "error" we deem uncorrelated to judgment under high stake situations? Or, perhaps we don't pay much attention to this email stuff outside the obvious psychological projections that are easy to do in these kinds of situations.

But in the rare case in Washington that there's a consistent "mental model" guiding its decision making, I invite my readers to partake in what one would say is a fantasy narrative in a place like Washington D.C. -- a proposed, standardized way of looking at what is becoming an inevitable event in the tech age of a public figure; the release of virtual communication. Perhaps a Chief Neuroscientist Officer in the White House may not be a bad idea, for we could have an objective (or less arbitrarily subjective and more neurologically based subjective) way of assessing these kinds of things in the hopes of not being more intelligent, but in applying the right kind of intelligence to the situation at hand.

So, with these 160,000 pages of documents released around Elana Kagan's communication, what would some of the proposed psychological factors that would be reasonably applied to this scenario to get a sense of whether there was some mental trouble stewing. Some might say looking for evidence.

• Evidence of prejudicial statements
• Non-rational/emotion-based thinking
• Integrative reasoning

And assuming you are of the camp that "all data is good data," than it might interest you to know that these factors are rarer than you think in the "normal" brain population, so much so that using these kinds of lens around an analysis of a potential Supreme Court Justice's emails would be futile. That it is a fact that:

• The brain stereotypes endlessly as an efficiency-based organ, trying to pick out which information to attend to and what not to attend to ( such thing as multitasking, folks)
• That emotions drive decisions
• That overcoming the left hemisphere's "love of reasoning at all costs" is something that loved ones of anosognosiacs know well but is pushed out of our own consciousness in our post-hoc rationalizing ways.

This leaves us wondering then what would a possible model of assessment be of all these emails, one that satisfies more the reality of the brain's laws and not the whimsical feel-good notions of traditional psychologisms? Well, I would say that the late strategic therapist Paul Watzlawick gives us a good look at the other side -- what we really should be focusing our attention on if we were to comb these emails for any substantive insight that is correlateable to real life decision making on the bench:

"...He was standing in the town's Beethoven Park, in front of a larger flower bed, and there discovered a sign with the inscription "No trespassing." This brought back a problem that had been bothering Franzi more and more during recent years. Once again he found himself in a situation that seemed to present only two possibilities, and both were unacceptable. Either he exerted his freedom in the face of this oppressive prohibition and began trampling on the flowers, at the same time risking arrest; or he stayed off the flower bed. But the mere thought of being such a coward, of obeying such a stupid sign, made his blood boil. For a long time he stood there, undecided at his wit's end, until suddenly, maybe because he never looked at flowers long enough, something totally and completely different came to his mind: THESE FLOWERS ARE BEAUTIFUL" (Watzlawick, 1988).

You see, in this brilliant example one sees a transcendence of thinking power that is not bound by mere claims of sarcasm and foul language, some of the common accusations around the content released in Kagan's emails. One could easily rewrite this story with these "less sophisticated qualities" and still not rob it from the main point at hand -- that there was a significant paradigm shift capacity here. At the end of the day, we need to look for the mother of all traits that is responsible for wisdom potential and not get mired down by the screaming symptoms that tempt us to derail into more comfortable analyses of contempt. But how do we foster this thinking more?

If Alexander Smith's quote is correct -- "Love is but the discovery of ourselves in others, and the delight in the recognition" -- perhaps evidence of this is essential for decisions that affect humanity. Is it too flowery to look at love as the gasoline for this insight potential, and could it be what fuels meta-cognition (thinking about one's thinking) in the way the Watzlawick story alludes? I argue not at all. The field of neurocardiology has discovered that the two way communication system between the heart and the brain is essential in creating peak performance thinking, and that feelings of love, care and appreciation do indeed foster more powerful transformational thinking. True, some of the email content is tough sounding and perhaps Kagan could have used a course in neurocardiology and political correctness, but I invite everyone to look behind the symptom -- language -- and look for evidence of paradigm-shifting thinking.

Without this we risk writing on June 28th through the annals of her hearings a transcript that is rote with biases, and decisional illusions, and assumptions made without neuroscience in mind. When that happens not sure which is more fantasy-based -- the committee's conclusion or the overly hopeful, fantasy narrative of legitimizing a true neuropsychological profile of wisdom for our Supreme Court

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