The Genius of the Beast

Bacteria, Bees, Galaxies, and You and Me—Probing the Big Picture

Romney's Secret Language

The hidden message of the presidential debates.

If Mitt Romney wins next week’s presidential election, it may be not be because of his brain and his policies.  It may be because of his body. And because of body language.

The debates with Barack Obama revealed two things about Mitt Romney that have nothing to do with logic and everything to do with instinct.  First, off, Romney (6’2”) is taller than Obama (6’1”).  Height is a powerful motivator of your emotional self, your self below the floorboards of consciousness. Studies in social psychology have consistently revealed that we rate tall people higher in IQ , we pay them higher starting salaries (every inch in height produces $6,000 in income), and if we are female, we swoon over them far more eagerly.  What does this have to do with politics? Writes the master of social psychology, Elliot Aronson, "In the overwhelming majority of American presidential elections, the taller of the two major candidates has won."

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Is our secret love of height rational?  Far from it.  But it may have been useful in our hunter-gatherer days.  Why?  The tallest person in the tribe usually got that way through superior nutrition and a host of other advantages.  Which means that his parents were likely to have been at the top of the tribe’s pecking order, the tribe’s hierarchy.  So the tallest person in the tribe is likely to have been born into power and privilege. He is also likely to have been handed the best high-level contacts and to have been taught the lessons of authority from birth. What’s more, the tallest person has advantages over his comrades in war with another tribe.  In battle, he stands out as a giant.  That makes him a target.  But it also marks him out as someone you would not want to confront in face to face combat.

None of these things apply in the modern world.  But our emotional self was formed long ago.  And it has more power over us than we like to admit.

The result?  The debates did something spectacular for Mitt.  In previous photos and video clips of President Obama, Barack has always been the tallest person in the room.  But when Obama and Mitt were side by side and on their feet—for example when they hugged—Obama looked like a toothpick being embraced by a tree.

Then there was another factor the debates revealed: the body language of dominance and submission.  In social groups ranging from crayfish and lobsters to lizards, chickens, and chimpanzees, there is a pecking order with a dominant male (and often a dominant female) on the top.  The dominant male is adept at flashing cues that indicate his status.  Cues that he is the master of all.  Mitt flashed those cues in the debates  with the greatest authority.  For example, in debate number two, Mitt took over the top spot from the debate’s moderator, Candy Crowley.  When Romney wanted to skip Crowley’s question and make a point of his own choosing, he gently, smilingly, but insistently, moved Crowley to the side and took control.    In doing so, he made Crowley look small. And he telegraphed his status as an alpha male.  Obama, who was polite and followed the rules, did not.

The bottom line?  If you want to vote on the basis of height and body language, by all means do.  But be aware of what has moved you. And remember this: there is a good chance that voting on policy and previous track record will get you a better president.

Howard Bloom is author of the new book The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism.

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