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Mitt Romney – Bully?

May 11, 2012


This is my first blog in the US Psychology Today site.

We have all done stupid things in our adolescence, and Mitt Romney is no different. How many of us would survive forensic analysis of everything we did in our youth, and is it fair that Mitt Romney’s high school antics should be raked over in a long article in the Washington Post? [i]

The Post article cited a number of former students who said they witnessed Mr Romney leading a posse to hack off the long blond hair of a fellow student as he lay pinned to the ground, crying and screaming for help.

Most of us who have spent time among groups of teenage boys will have witnessed or partaken – as perpetrators or victims – in comparable events. And what teenage girl has not had a similar knowledge of the far greater cruelty of unexplained sudden exclusion or obloquy by ‘friends’?

The frontal lobes of the brain are not fully connected to the rest of the brain until the early to mid twenties, which explains the high insurances premiums for young drivers and their capacity for thoughtless cruelty, unmitigated by the inhibitory impulses which make older people so much more inhibited, forethoughtful – and maybe a little boring.

So it really isn’t fair to bring up the young Mitt Romney’s high school antics, even if he is also described as  giggling after purposely guiding a blind teacher into a closed door.  Young people – particularly young guys – do crazy things without thinking through the consequences.

One of the most important of unconsidered consequences can be other people’s feelings. Empathy, in other words, is a casualty of the young brain’s not-yet-connectedness. Mitt Romney says he cannot remember the hair-cutting episode, but if he does remember it and it did happen, I imagine he would feel a shiver of fellow-feeling for his ex-schoolmate, who died in 2004.  Doubtless the adult Romney’s full wired-up brain would also trigger such an empathic shiver for his blind teacher, were it to be true that he whimsically guided him into a door.

While it is unfair to hold the adult presidential-candidate brain accountable for the behavior of its not-yet-matured youthful predecessor, even the adult Romney brain seems sometimes to show a little of that empathy gap that his young brain was apparently prone to.

On 1st February this year, Mr Romney’s nomination 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 power and the lack of empathy and egocentricity it can trigger,  is that it inclines us to see people as a means to our ends – more as instruments of our own goals. 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.[ii]

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,’ may have been the result of this empathy gap that power’s biological effects on the brain produces.

But power is not the only thing that can degrade empathy – so can wealth, and Mitt Romney had plenty of that behind him while in his elite high school in Michigan.  Michael Kraus and colleagues [iii] of UCSF in California showed that people in the highest income brackets are significantly less empathically accurate in judging  other people’s emotions than those in the lowest income brackets.

Mitt Romney’s power and wealth that he has wielded throughout his life will inevitably have shaped his brain in crucial ways, ways which include making it harder for him to imagine other peoples’ emotions, and hence perhaps suffering. But then, any US president will acquire similarly brain-changing power.  The question on which a lot of our future depends is – whose brain can handle it best? Maybe it’s an important enough question that even teenage behavior patterns become relevant.

[ii] Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95, 111-127

[iii] Psychological Science November 2010 vol. 21 no. 11 1716-1723


One Comment leave one →
  1. May 13, 2012 3:14 pm

    “Mitt Romney’s power and wealth that he has wielded throughout his life will inevitably have shaped his brain in crucial ways, ways which include making it harder for him to imagine other peoples’ emotions, and hence perhaps suffering” Why does this statement send a little shudder through me?

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