Thoughts on Rob Ford (vol. 2)

My comments a couple of weeks ago about Toronto mayor Rob Ford have attracted a few visits from members of Ford Nation (yes, these people are real). And while none were able to marshall a level of civility sufficient to get their comments past moderation, they were able to communicate to me their strong desire that I elaborate on the various promissory notes I made in my last Ford post, including the suggestion that I would have more to say more about Ford being “dumb.”

I am happy to oblige.

Let me just start by observing that I’m not the only person who has impugned Ford’s intellect. I think the best line came from our former mayor Mel Lastman, who said “this guy makes me look like a genius,” before adding, with the characteristic Lastman touch, “and I’m not a genius.”

This, by the way, was long before the whole crack scandal broke.

The reason that people think Rob Ford is “not a genius” is that he does things that defy explanation in any other terms. For example, in September 2012 Ford was facing trial for having violated the provincial law governing conflict of interest, in a case that began with him using his office stationary, along with public resources, to solicit funds for his private football foundation. While the judge was deliberating, Ford had police commandeer two city buses to come pick up his football team after a game – and when they did not arrive quickly enough, he called the head of the TTC on his cellphone to complain. (The game had finished 45 minutes early, and they did not want to wait until the school bus they had chartered arrived to pick them up.)

What is striking about this incident is the extent to which it forced the judge’s hand. Ford had already made it clear, during the trial, that he had not read the conflict of interest rules, that he did not understand them, and furthermore, that he was not willing to accept the plain meaning of the statute. He maintained the position that as long as he did not gain personally, then there was no conflict. In other words, he did everything but announce his intention to continue to break the law. This made it very difficult for the judge to rule in his favour.

And then he goes and commandeers a city bus to chauffeur his football players. How is one to interpret this behaviour? Assuming that he wants to remain mayor, what was going through his mind? I don’t think you have to be either an elitist or a snob to think that the only plausible theory is one that ascribes to him rather serious cognitive deficits. The kind of deficits that impair normal decision-making and reasoning. It’s not being mean, it’s just that this is the only way to make sense of what he did.

Of course, the words “stupid” and “dumb” get bandied about a little bit too casually. It’s easy to imagine that people who don’t share one’s political views are just “stupid.” For example, people often claimed that George W. Bush was dumb. This is actually an interesting case, since all of the evidence suggests that in fact he is not. Both Bush and John Kerry have degrees from Yale University (graduating in ’68 and ’66 respectively). During the 2004 presidential election, Democrats had been pushing for the release of Bush’s university transcripts, assuming that they would be bad. To their dismay, they discovered that Bush had graduated with a slightly higher GPA than Kerry. Apparently his SAT scores were higher too.

Thus it is clear that Bush does not lack in “general intelligence,” of the sort that is measured by IQ tests. And yet he was clearly a terrible decision-maker.

One of the problems in this discussion is that we have a tendency to conflate two rather different things, namely, “rationality” and “intelligence.” General intelligence is, in a sense, a measure of how well your brain works. Rationality, by contrast, involves a variety of high-level competencies, including the ability in engage in problem-solving in ways that are free of cognitive bias. My colleague at UofT, psychologist Keith Stanovich has spent a fair bit of time trying to show that the two are not strongly correlated.

One way of understanding the distinction is to think of “intelligence” as a property of the hardware of the brain, whereas “rationality” is more like a software program that we run, which is largely acquired from culture and social interaction, which guides us in solving complex problems. For example, if the way that you make major decisions in life is by drinking peyote, then going out in the desert and waiting for a vision to guide you, then it means that you have acquired a bad decision-making procedure. You might have a perfectly good brain, but you’re basically running defective software on it.

Stanovich coined a special term, dysrationalia, to describe this syndrome. He defines it as an “inability to think or behave rationally despite adequate general intelligence.” George W. Bush serves as exhibit A – a person who was perfectly capable of intelligent thought, but who had adopted a set of explicit problem-solving and decision strategies that were deeply flawed. For example, even a sympathetic observer like David Frum, who wrote a whole book about how awesome Bush was, described him as “dogmatic and incurious.” Bush was simply not interested in hearing any opinions that differed from his own – he never sought out other perspectives, to test his own beliefs. All he ever sought was confirmation. As a result, he was terrible at contingency planning, because he seldom entertained the possibility that he might be wrong about anything.

Here is a good illustration of the consequences of this pattern of thought.



When asked to name a “mistake” he had made, Bush is (I think) genuinely stumped. It’s not just that he is trying to think about what he can admit on television without excessive blowback. I think what is striking about this clip is that he seems to have never thought about the question. He does not have a private list of regrets, lessons learned, or even self-doubts that he can sift through, looking for something to say. He is drawing a blank. The thought “what have I done wrong,” or “have I made a mistake?” simply had not previously occurred to him.

So in Bush we find an instance of an intelligent man, struggling and failing to achieve a standard of rational decision-making.

Ford is not like that. He has more serious problems. On the one hand, he is clearly irrational. He has huge self-control issues, which make it almost impossible for him to engage in the ordinary back-and-forth of argumentation without losing his temper. This makes it all but impossible for him to engage with thoughts other than his own (at this point he doesn’t even listen to advisers). But he also has more serious, underlying cognitive deficits – problems with the hardware, as it were. Specifically, he has extremely limited capacity for what psychologists refer to as “formal-operational thought.”

The natural bias of the human brain is toward concrete thinking. We find it easy to think about the actual state of the world. We find it more difficult to think about hypothetical states of affairs, or abstract claims. For example, the reason that we teach only arithmetic to young children, and don’t start in on algebra until late primary school, is that the concept of a “variable” is simply too abstract for children to grasp, until about the age of 12, when they achieve some capacity for formal-operational thought.

So if you say to a younger child, x = 5, they may get it, but if later on you set x = 7, they may say “wait a minute, I thought x was equal to 5.” The idea of a number is already abstract, but that of a variable – something that can be set equal to any number, or that can be involved in calculations even though you don’t know what it is equal to – is at a higher order of abstraction. Some people are not really able to operate at this level.

One can see a strong bias towards concrete thinking in a lot of the more puzzling things that Ford has said and done. It was quite apparent in the discussion of his conflict of interest case. There it became clear that the distinction between “public” and “private” interests was simply too abstract for him to grasp. He kept interpreting his “private” interests as “things that are for me” and the “public” as “things that are for other people.” Thus he kept repeating the claim that the money that went to his football foundation was “for the kids,” as though that made it not a “private” interest, and therefore immune to charges of conflict. The idea that a charity might count as a private interest, simply because it was not part of his official function, completely eluded him. After all, it was “for the kids.”

Here is a video of Ford defending himself against the conflict of interest accusation (the speech that ultimately got him into trouble, since he should have recused himself from the discussion). Again, one can see the extraordinary concreteness of the thinking (such as the long list of high schools that have benefited from his charity):



One of the central arguments made by Ford’s critics was that, when an individual who does business with the city receives a letter, from the mayor’s office, soliciting a “donation” to the mayor’s private charity, that this might be easily be interpreted as a shakedown. The mayor’s defence against this was to say “but it wasn’t” (and again, “it was for the kids”). Here one can see the signs of overly concrete thinking, in this case involving difficulties with “false belief” ascription and inference.

None of this was a surprise to people who had been following Ford’s campaign. For example, Ford made a big deal out of the “millions and millions” of dollars being wasted at city hall. When asked how he intended to pay for things like subways, his answer was always that he would eliminate the waste. But when asked for some examples of this waste, he spent an incredible amount of time talking about the excessive photocopying being done by city councillors (and sometimes the fact that food was served during lunchtime council meetings).

Again, one can see the dominance of the concrete in his thinking. When asked about “waste,” all he could think of were the things that he had seen with his own eyes, which was the behaviour of city councillors. There was one point at which a baffled CBC interviewer, having gotten this response from Ford, tried to make sense of it by asking: “Are you saying that all this photocopying symbolizes a culture of waste, which sets the tone for the rest of the city?” “No,” Ford said, “I’m talking about the photocopying, there’s way too much photocopying going on.” “But, but, but” said the CBC interviewer, “you’re talking about a few thousand dollars there, at most. You’re going to need to eliminate billions of dollars of waste to build subways…”

What the interviewer was thinking, of course, when trying to reinterpret the photocopying remark, is that “no one could be that stupid.” That’s the premise that a lot of people bring to the table, when trying to figure out Ford. And so they wind up weaving more and more elaborate explanations of what he might have been thinking, or what he might have meant. At some point though, the simpler explanation begins to assert itself. This is the explanation that I am proposing: he has extremely limited capacity for abstract thought.

A final example, this one post-crack scandal. It is clear that Ford – as well as his family – do not really understand the concept of “addiction.” Ford has serious self-control problems, which manifest themselves in various ways, including anger management issues, drug and alcohol abuse, but also overeating. The overeating (and junk food), however, is the most concrete issue, because it results in a highly visible outcome, which is that he is overweight. So whenever he is asked about his alcoholism or drug abuse, he always points to the fact that he is “going to the gym,” as though this is something that should make us all feel better. (Similarly, his mother and sister, when interviewed, had a disturbing tendency to misinterpret every question posed to them about his addiction problems as though it were about his weight. So, to a question like, “is he a drug addict” they would say, “no, no, he’s a little overweight maybe, but now he’s going to the gym.”)

So what we can see here is that neither Rob Ford, nor his family, really grasps the concept of addiction – that there is a general pattern in his behaviour, whereby he consistently gives into temptation, choosing the sooner-smaller reward over the larger-later reward, and comes to regret the consequences. The pattern is simply too abstract, and so Ford gravitates toward the one concrete self-control issue he has, that has the most visible consequences, namely his overeating.

The examples could be multiplied. It’s fairly clear that Ford does not have a clear understanding of the powers of the mayor’s office. He doesn’t understand what counts as “saving money” and what doesn’t (for example, he counts the revenue that the city lost, due to his tax cuts, as a “saving” for the city, rather than as a “cost”). One suspects that he doesn’t really grasp the size of the city budget at all.

So when Robyn Doolittle claims that Ford is a “political genius,” I am tempted to quibble. There is no doubt that he is capable of manifesting a certain cunning. Doolittle presents a great example of this: “[Ford] brought his wife out to stand at his side while he apologized, and then made this huge speech saying ‘I implore you, respect my wife’s privacy.’ Then he grabbed his wife Renata and dragged her through something like 50 reporters and photographers and it looked just awful on the media even through there is a door to the right that he could have taken,” Doolittle said. “He’s a master of that sort of political messaging.”

The thing about this sort of manipulation of people in face-to-face settings is that it doesn’t require any abstract thinking. Sarah Palin is really good at it too. Both of them may excel at what I like to think of, following Franz de Waal, as chimpanzee politics – relational power, manipulation and domination in social settings. But that doesn’t make either of them geniuses. If anything, if just means that they have some good political instincts.


Thoughts on Rob Ford (vol. 2) — 7 Comments

  1. Hi, Joseph,
    Do you think his tendency towards hyperbole (the best mayor ever, etc.) and black-and-white thinking with no nuance or acknowledgment of degree (perfect/not perfect, left/right, elite/”real” people, etc.) are also examples of that concrete thinking?

    I liked your post, but unfortunately I doubt it will convince any pro-Ford fanatics. Any argument just gives them something to push back against. (The same can be said of anti-Ford fanatics too, I suppose.)

  2. Very good interpretation – I hadn’t thought of it this way. I also see a large amount of narcissistic sociopath tendencies – the world revolves around him and he really does not have empathy for anyone else except perhaps his family (and the way he uses them as props tells me he doesn’t have a lot of it for them either) The fact that people who meet him feel that he is charming reinforces the sociopath part.

  3. Drug addicts, alcoholics are not normal and you can talk/write about them all you want but the simple answer is; He’s an addict. He will never make sense. (Unfortunately knew a few and it always amazed how conceited they were) Just like Bush some big whigs in the background want a “stupid” leader that they can mold to do what they want.

  4. Excellent post. It’s nice to have someone point out that Ford isn’t wily or cunning, just a lunkhead with severe impulse-control issues. What makes Ford of extra interest is that he’s constantly seeking leadership roles (councillor, coach, mayor) as a way of proving to himself that he isn’t just dopey fat guy. I did a post called “What Makes a Conservative Conservative?” a couple of years ago about a book on the psychology of military incompetence. The book also said a lot about the how and why of right-wing personalities like Ford’s. Here’s the link:

  5. Thank you for this bracing read, wherein you make several excellent points. I certainly agree with your conclusion, i.e. that Ford may not be fantastically intelligent, but that his political instincts are certainly strong.

    The one thing I take issue with has nothing to do with Ford and his abject failure to improve the City which he ostensibly leads: rather, it concerns peyote, about which you wrote the following, apropos of nothing:

    > For example, if the way that you make major decisions in life is by drinking peyote, then going out in the desert and waiting for a vision to guide you, then it means that you have acquired a bad decision-making procedure. You might have a perfectly good brain, but you’re basically running defective software on it.

    I have never myself consumed peyote, nor am I likely to. However, even a cursory glance at the subject indicates that to some people, peyote is not some crazy thing to be consumed out of desperation or for recreation. To some people, peyote is a god. Surely you can see your way to a more generous assessment of its value to various cultures than the blunt dismissal and implicit link to the disastrous Rob Ford which you have written above?

    I reject the notion that just because someone looks to peyote for guidance that their decision-making process is inherently “bad” or that this indicates “defective [brain] software”. In any case, I would rather have a Mayor consuming peyote than crack cocaine.

    Ideally, of course, our next Mayor will be relatively sober and generally present in the reality inhabited by the rest of us.

  6. Very interesting. The issue of Ford’s continuing popularity is also worth exploring, and defusing that popularity is the main political challenge for the left. The “Ford phenomenon” isn’t just one man. Ford nation has its mindset as well. If the explanation for Ford’s popularity is that his die-hard supporters have the same cognitive limitations as Ford, I’d say we’re in very big trouble. But they don’t. I reckon most of these folks are capable of abstract critical thought, they just don’t wan’t to think. They are settled in their views, and find some measure of satisfaction in being part of the collective voice that expresses them. And that can be explained by a number of factors: misplaced resentment and hostility, racism, intolerance. But politically, the task for those who want a different Mayor for Toronto is to get down in the trenches and work out in the field, as it were, and engage Ford supporters with evidence and sound argument. I know that some within Ford nation are simply unmovable in their support for him. But unless a good segment of that constituency can be moved away from it, I fear the outcome of the election will be left to chance.