What Was Romney Doing? He Was Winning!

The screenshot above is of an aggressive, slightly impulsive male primate named Chris Matthews describing the neuroselves of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama just after the end of their unmoderated cage match. Like me (check out the transcript of my live blog here) Matthews was watching the nonverbals during last night’s debate, and like me Matthews noticed that Romney’s were dominant and Obama’s submissive. Unlike me, his head exploded.

In part, I think, Matthews lost it because he didn’t notice something subtle that happened at around minute 60: Obama became increasingly dominant, and his dancing partner (for dominance-submission is a dance, and Romney is a dancer) became submissive. Maybe it didn’t register because Matthew’s nervous system – like all of ours – made its initial judgment in that first hour. Maybe it was too late. Still, it gives hope that if Obama can pick up where he left – emotionally – off, he may pull out a win in the next debate.

Regardless, the overwhelming story of the night was Obama’s nonverbal submissiveness, and Romney’s yee-ha aggression. But if you think about it, the dynamic didn’t begin with nonverbals. It began with the verbals and then infected the nonverbals. And it started, masochistically, with the President.

If you think back to the (very weird) start of the debate, Obama led with a staggeringly submissive idea.

There are a lot of points I want to make tonight, but the most important one is that 20 years ago I became the luckiest man on Earth because Michelle Obama agreed to marry me. And so I just want to wish, Sweetie, you happy anniversary and let you know that a year from now we will not be celebrating it in front of 40 million people.

Wait. He’s fighting for the Presidency of the United States, and the most important point he has to make is that it’s his anniversary? And somehow raising the thought in everyone’s mind that maybe what he has in mind is not celebrating it in the Oval Office either? Meanwhile I’ve known men who’ve prioritized their fantasy football drafts over their anniversaries. Can’t he make it through an hour and a half debate? He even gets to kiss her on the jumbotron afterwards.

In psychotherapy training you’re taught to pay especially close attention to two things patients say during a session: the first, and the last. Patients tend to think they’re off the clock and it hasn’t started yet – or has come to an end – and so they’re unguarded. You often get your clearest view into their thoughts, and, to me, that’s what it felt like was happening with Obama here. But you don’t have to be a shrink (though it helps) to see there are a lot of wrong signals contained in Obama’s opening anecdote – whether or not Dave Axelrod greenlit it.  At a moment when any boxing enthusiast knows his attention should have been turned to the silverback gorilla beating his chest over there at the edge of the clearing, Obama was focused on romantic love. Not only that – even in his anecdote he downplayed his alpha maleness. He implied that he was lucky that Michelle chose to marry him, and then very publicly wished he was alone with her and not fighting the silverback. For all I know Michelle was pissed the debate was scheduled for tonight, and this was a private communication between the two of them masquerading as (bad) politics. In any event it doesn’t matter what Obama thought he was doing. Submission was all over that first comment. Male gorillas aren’t lucky to find mates. There isn’t any luck involved. In the gorilla world, males earn the right to reproduce – or don’t reproduce at all. By fighting. (Aside from the tricky issue of non-human primate rape; we’ll leave that aside). And alpha males do not fantasize about leaving fights to woo girls they’ve already gotten; they fantasize about giving their upstart rival a thorough beat down. The right move there was for Obama to save his gracious comment for the end, when – having won – he could get the girl (just like in Hollywood movies), and to lead with how important it was, in his mind, to beat the stuff out of his out-of-his-league rival.

Romney pounced by emphasizing to the viewers that Obama seemed, more or less, in the mood for love and wistfulness, not conflict. Here’s Romney in response

And congratulations to you, Mr. President, on your anniversary. I’m sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine, here — here with me.

This was a great subliminal attack by Romney – through sarcasm telling Obama two things: one, I know you want your mommy (in psychiatry wives are mommies – remember?), and two, I’m not your mommy. It was almost sadistic.

But as always happens when the prefrontal cortex loses control of the limbic system and it goes rogues, the nonverbals came spilling out very quickly after that. My blog has a lot of them – the eye movements, the head positions, the throaty voices. But primate dynamics evolve quickly; most of those things were just further proof of the dynamic that started at the top. Looking at my live blog, I first noted Obama was nervous six minutes in at 9:06, and then that Romney was aggressive at 9:08 – and surely Matthews and all the rest of us did the same, even if subconsciously. Romney was by every measure appearing to be – literally – up, and Obama, pairing off with him, was appearing down. By 9:22 I, like most viewers, was certain enough to write it down and publish it –

Romney head up, Obama head down. Romney smiling, Obama grimacing. Romney looking down, Obama looking up. These nonverbals are coursing into the central nervous systems of viewers across the country and communicating that Romney is winning.

The nonverbals went on like this for about as long as panic attacks – and submission attacks – or whatever you want to call what Obama was having – tend to last – roughy forty minutes. If you’ve ever had a panic attack yourself, you know: they’re on a timer. Everyone thinks that talking to friends calms panic down, but the truth is that the timeframe of these conversations usually maps onto a physiological clock. Panic burns out and homeostasis kicks in. And sure enough, at 9:50 Obama seemed to be righting himself physiologically and cognitively, his prefrontal cortex finally regaining control of his limbic system (as it would turn out, over-reaching and shutting it off completely; like many cognitive over-compensators he overshot and ended up all frontal lobe – which is to say, geeking out).

Still, the switch into aggression – this seems to have been lost in the commentary, but the tide shifted – required outside intervention to be kickstarted. As I blogged at 9:54, it took the incompetent moderator, Lehrer, an hour to demonstrate his first aggression of the night, towards Romney for his time stealing. As happens in primate fights, it was this outside influence that inspired the submissive partner – Obama – to become overtly aggressive. In a funny way, though, that it took Lehrer to get Obama on his feet – like a ref helping a fallen boxer up – this only made things worse. For the nonverbal communication then was that Obama wasn’t feeling like the second toughest guy in the room. He was feeling like the third toughest guy in the room.

He began his aggressive rebound an hour late – psychodynamically he may like comebacks – but as I worried at 9:56, most people had made their decisions.

Question: will viewers who’ve had Obama’s submission signals pumping into their amygdalae for an hour realize there’s a shift going on? Or are they all watching Honey Boo Boo?”

When the debate ended (I was watching it on MSNBC) Rachel Maddow said “I don’t know who won”  (first thing out of her mouth, actually; it’s worth wondering what kept her from knowing). The neuroscience of her brain there is intriguing – did she know but not want to say, or did she really not know? If so, she may have been more frontal than limbic just then. But it didn’t matter. Matthews, like me and most of America, did. Unlike in boxing, in debate the guy who wins the first half of the fight is remembered as the winner.

Matthews was understandably furious. He was focused, like an ethologist, on the nonverbals of the fight. He’s not been seduced by the bias, in print journalism, towards words and ideas: he pays attention to what monkeys pay attention to. Physiology and motor output – muscle tone, sympathetic tone, eye movements, joint angles. Listen him in this transcript from RCP – he and I were seeing the same dynamic:

I don’t know what [Obama] was doing out there. He had his head down, he was enduring the debate rather than fighting it….Romney, on the other hand, came in with a campaign. He had a plan, he was going to dominate the time, he was going to be aggressive, he was going to push the moderator around, which he did effectively, he was going to relish the evening, enjoying it…Obama…what was he doing tonight? He went in there disarmed…. He was like, ‘Oh an hour and half? I think I can get through this thing. And I don’t even look at this guy.’ Whereas Romney — I love the split-screen — staring at Obama, addressing him like prey. He did it just right…. I’m coming at an incumbent. I got to beat him. You’ve got to beat the champ and I’m going to beat him tonight. And I don’t care what this guy, the moderator, whatever he thinks he is because I’m going to ignore him… What was Romney doing? He was winning!

It’s a fascinating idea – that one can score a Presidential debate purely on nonverbals – and Matthews clearly believes in it, though he would add that the ideas the candidates serve up, the content of their comments, matters to. I’d hope that he thinks what I think, which is that in the end it’s the ideas that matter. But form plays a huge role in deciding whether someone is perceived as winning and losing. In the animal kingdom bluster evolved as a way of preventing serious injury; it pays to bark before you bite, and to bite (and therefore be bitten) as little as possible.

Between now and the next debate I’ll try to put together a neuroscience primer – scratch that, a neuroself primer – for evaluating bluster. It’ll start at the bottom, with a focus on the genes that wire up the serotonin system, which is par excellence the neurotransmitter system involved in maintaining social hierarchy. (That’s why, by the way, most people with affective disorders – which can be usefully reconceptualized, evolutionarily, as status-maintenance disorders – take serotonergic medications). Then we’ll move up to the neurotransmitters themselves, and focus on the big five in play during a gorilla fight – serotonin, of course, and dopamine, vasopressin, oxytocin and testosterone. I’ll assume GABA and glutamate, but maybe get to them in a primer 2.0 for debate #3. Third, we’ll move up to brain regions – with a focus on prefrontal cortex, amygdala, hypothalamus, and periaqueductal grey. Fourth, we’ll get into circuitry, and particularly the dynamic interplay of prefrontal cortex with subcortical limbic regions. It’s this dynamic interplay that can be altered on a second-by-second basis, and accounts for rapidly shifting states (rather than the traits determined by gene expression). Fifth, we’ll move into the information beng processed in these circuits – as though moving to the image on a computer screen from the design of the screen and motherboard making it possible – and focus on the concept of multiple competing neuroselves. Finally we’ll end with the real action: the effect of all of this – going on in the candidates’ nervous systems – on the home viewer’s neuroself. By adopting this hierarchically organized analysis, as most good social neuroscience does, we’ll position ourselves for some good blogging. One hopes.

If this is to be a good series of debates, Obama find a way to get out of his subservient mode and into his dominant one. The good news is it’s possible: in human psychology, as in superhero movies, dominance and aggression always travel together – even when only one is being displayed. They are two sides of a single coin, which can turn on a dime (do coins do that?) from down to up. If someone can get Obama to think – and then say – “you” instead of “he”, to attack his rival rather than appeal to the judge, and to give up his accursed notepad so his damn head stays up in classic alpha style, it will go better. If he were my patient I’d have him trying Xanax 0.25mg all week to get used to it, and then having him take it 30m before the next debate. He’d come off as calm, and his prefrontal would blow Romney away. But that’s cheating, right? Using drugs to modify our neuroselves? Then we’re not real? Right? Unless we call it a sleep medication? Or one for pain? Isn’t Romney pain enough? Or in the end is it better to melt down a second time and lose the Presidency over a thimblefull of serotonin and GABA?

These are existential, social, moral questions. The neurobiological ones are out there. Psychiatrists hand them out like candy (so I’m told) every day. One way or another, it could be a mere flick of the amygdalar switch for Obama to realize he’s in the middle of the movie, not the end of it – it’s time to drop the girl and get the man. We’ll have to wait and see if Obama can, or even wants to, make it.


  1. let me get this, let me get this, you guys pay more for healthcare than any other naiotn on this planet & yet you don’t have the best healthcare & about 30 million of your citizens don’t have any form of health care. The private insurance are jacking up prices & making record profits year on year which you don’t seem to object to. Your government want to reform this broken system and it seems some of you are ready to start a revolution. You guys are either brainwashed by foxnews or you need your heads examined

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s