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Mitt Romney’s empathy gap

March 19, 2012

Yesterday, Mitt Romney won  the Puerto Rico Primary handsomely. On 1st February this year, however, his campaign had a major hiccup when he said on CNN to interviewer Soledad O’Brien ‘I’m not concerned about the very poor’. Although he tried to clarify this by saying he meant ‘I’m not concerned for the very poor who have safety nets’, the starkness of his statement still hung in the air. Was this a result of simple cold campaign calculation – the very poor are much less likely to vote for instance – or does it reveal something else about the psychology of Mitt Romney?

Romney is an exceptionally rich and powerful man. And power does funny things to the brain.

One consequence of lack of empathy and egocentricity is that it inclines us to see people as a means to our ends – more as instruments of our own goals. Professor Deborah Gruenfeld and colleagues at Stanford University have found evidence for precisely this: if we arouse power feelings in otherwise ordinary people, they begin to see others as objects.

When students’ brains were primed into a power mode by reliving a situation from their past where they had power over someone, they also were inclined to see others in terms of how useful they were to them. They were, for instance, more likely to report that they contacted people when they needed something from them and they were less likely to report that they really liked a colleague independently of how useful that person was to them.[i]

If brief memories of low-grade power in artificial experiments can make people more egocentric and socially uninhibited and inclines them to see other people as objects, what effects does long-term, large-scale power over thousands of people have on the human mind? Gruenfeld had a unique opportunity to answer this question at a gathering of high-level business executives who had long experience of wielding power. True to her predictions, Gruenfeld showed that power-wielding senior business executives were more likely than business students to view people – whether underlings or peers – in terms of their usefulness to them rather than in terms of their non-utilitarian personal qualities.

So  former high-level executive, State Governor and multi-millionaire Mitt Romney’s cold statement “I’m not concerned about the very poor,’ was probably a result of this empathy gap that power’s biological effects on the brain produces. More next week. Image


[i] Gruenfeld DH et al (2008) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95, 111-127.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2012 4:17 pm

    Very good explanation. Most reports blithely state that people with power and money were shown to have less empathy, without a break down of their mindset. I also appreciate the Gruenfeld paper which relied on past experiences, as opposed to studies which use single behavioral experiments that could be interpreted in more than one way.

    Now if you all could only figure out why people like Mittens get their statements blown all out of proportion. Is Romney actually an empathetic guy? No (we lived with him as governor of our state, he did a terrible job) but the media had way too much fun playing that clip out of context.

    • April 8, 2012 7:44 pm

      I think it’s pretty hard to know what a politician is ‘really’ like in personality, because of the amount of image and media management that goes on. And you are right, the media really do spin things out of proportion. But I think that power really goes to some people’s heads more than others. Nicholas Sarkozy, for instance, really seems to have had his judgment corroded by the power he held during the first period of his presidency, in a way that Angela Merkel did not, for instance. And please let’s not talk about Vladimir Putin!

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