The Winner Effect

Exploring the neuroscience of success and failure

Mitt Romney's 47% Victims

The psychology behind Mitt Romney's derogation of 47% of Americans

A clandestine video released on Monday revealed Mitt Romney saying that 47% of US voters ‘believe they are victims’ entitled to government support and that ‘my job is not to worry about these people’.

The use of the term ‘victim’ is as interesting as it is derogatory, as you can hear in another sentence from the video:  “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives’.  That’s a pretty contemptuous remark when applied to anyone, let alone to roughly 200 million citizens!

Given that the 47% of the population referred to includes retirees and low income workers in receipt of tax credits introduced by Mr Romney’s own party, the question arises as to why he could say something that is so damaging to his own political campaign, with many of these ‘victims’ being potential supporters.

A clue to this puzzle comes in a paper published in Psychological Science by Aaron Kay of Stanford University and colleagues, entitled Victim Derogation and Victim Enhancement as Alternate Routes to System Justification [i]. They based this study on evidence that most people – including Mitt Romney and Barack Obama we presume – have a preference to see the social system to which they belong as being fair and justifiable rather than as unfair and unjustifiable.  

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An example of this tendency can be seen in the ‘just world hypothesis’, namely the belief that people should get their just deserts, with virtue rewarded and its opposite punished. Such beliefs seem to provide some comfort to individuals in spite of the fact that there is no evidence that they apply in the real world. On the contrary, adjusting to a devastating and permanent injury can be difficult for people who strongly subscribe to the just world view, because they feel unfairly punished in spite of the virtuous lives they believe themselves to have led.

When faced with assertions of inequities in the system one lives in, one way of reducing the cognitive discomfort, or dissonance, that arises with one’s belief that the system is fair, is to derogate the ‘losers’ as being in some way culpable for their own plight. 

If the ‘losers’ in the system are seen to be losing because of their laziness, lack of initiative or lack of intelligence, then that means that the system is indeed fair after all and thus the strong need to feel that we belong to a fair system, satisfied.

This then gives a clue to one reason why Mitt Romney made such an enormous political blunder in describing 200 million of his potential voters as lacking responsibility and care for their own lives: by derogating them, he was, unconsciously perhaps, satisfying his largely unconscious need to believe that the system at whose peak he hopes to sit, is a fair one.

A dictator would have no need to believe in the fairness of his social system, but Mitt Romney does appear to have such a belief and that is to his credit. But the way he has cognitively adjusted to achieve this consistence may be an electoral blunderbuss turned on himself.

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www.thewinnereffect.com

[i] Psychological Science March 2005 vol. 16 no. 3 240-246

Ian Robertson, Ph.D., the author of The Winner Effect, holds the Chair in Psychology at Trinity College Dublin.

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