How Obama tapped into a powerful—and only recently studied—human emotion called "elevation."

The state of the universe.
Dec. 3 2008 7:03 AM

Obama in Your Heart

How the president-elect tapped into a powerful—and only recently studied—human emotion called "elevation."

For researchers of emotions, creating them in the lab can be a problem. Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Berkeley, studies the emotions of uplift, and he has tried everything from showing subjects vistas of the Grand Canyon to reading them poetry—with little success. But just this week one of his postdocs came in with a great idea: Hook up the subjects, play Barack Obama's victory speech, and record as their autonomic nervous systems go into a swoon.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama
Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

In his forthcoming book, Born To Be Good (which is not a biography of Obama), Keltner writes that he believes when we experience transcendence, it stimulates our vagus nerve, causing "a feeling of spreading, liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat." For the 66 million Americans who voted for Obama, that experience was shared on Election Day, producing a collective case of an emotion that has only recently gotten research attention. It's called "elevation."

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Elevation has always existed but has just moved out of the realm of philosophy and religion and been recognized as a distinct emotional state and a subject for psychological study. Psychology has long focused on what goes wrong, but in the past decade there has been an explosion of interest in "positive psychology"—what makes us feel good and why. University of Virginia moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who coined the term elevation, writes, "Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental 'reset button,' wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration."

Haidt quotes first-century Greek philosopher Longinus on great oratory: "The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport." Such feeling was once a part of our public discourse. After hearing Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, former slave Frederick Douglass said it was a "sacred effort." But uplifting rhetoric came to sound anachronistic, except as practiced by the occasional master like Martin Luther King Jr. or Ronald Reagan. And now Obama.

We come to elevation, Haidt writes, through observing others—their strength of character, virtue, or "moral beauty." Elevation evokes in us "a desire to become a better person, or to lead a better life." The 58 million McCain voters might say that the virtue and moral beauty displayed by Obama at his rallies was an airy promise of future virtue and moral beauty. And that the soaring feeling his voters had of having made the world a better place consisted of the act of placing their index fingers on a touch screen next to the words Barack Obama. They might be on to something. Haidt's research shows that elevation is good at provoking a desire to make a difference but not so good at motivating real action. But he says the elevation effect is powerful nonetheless. "It does appear to change people cognitively; it opens hearts and minds to new possibilities. This will be crucial for Obama."

Keltner believes certain people are "vagal superstars"—in the lab he has measured people who have high vagus nerve activity. "They respond to stress with calmness and resilience, they build networks, break up conflicts, they're more cooperative, they handle bereavement better." He says being around these people makes other people feel good. "I would guarantee Barack Obama is off the charts. Just bring him to my lab."

It was while looking through the letters of Thomas Jefferson that Haidt first found a description of elevation. Jefferson wrote of the physical sensation that comes from witnessing goodness in others: It is to "dilate [the] breast and elevate [the] sentiments … and privately covenant to copy the fair example." Haidt took this description as a mandate. Since it's tricky to study the vagus nerve, he and a psychology student conceived of a way to look at it indirectly. The vagus nerve works with oxytocin, the hormone of connection. Since oxytocin is released during breast-feeding, he and the student brought in 42 lactating women and had them watch either an inspiring clip from The Oprah Winfrey Show about a gang member saved from a life of violence by a teacher or an amusing bit from a Jerry Seinfeld routine.

About half the Oprah-watching mothers either leaked milk into nursing pads or nursed their babies following the viewing; none of the Seinfeld watchers felt enough breast dilation to wet a pad, and fewer than 15 percent of them nursed. You could say elevation is Oprah's opiate of the masses, so it's fitting that she early on gave Obama her imprimatur. And that for his victory speech was up front in Grant Park, elevation's moist embodiment, feeling so at one with humankind that she used a stranger as a handkerchief.

The researchers say elevation is part of a family of self-transcending emotions. Some others are awe, that sense of the vastness of the universe and smallness of self that is often invoked by nature; another is admiration, that goose-bump-making thrill that comes from seeing exceptional skill in action. Keltner says we most powerfully experience these in groups—no wonder people spontaneously ran into the street on election night, hugging strangers. "We had to evolve these emotions to devote ourselves into social collectives," he says.

When you start thinking about mass movements, all those upturned, glowing faces of true believers—be they the followers of Jim Jones or Adolf Hitler—you don't always get a warm feeling about mankind. Instead, knowing where some of these "social collectives" end up, the sensation is a cold chill. Haidt acknowledges that in "calling the group to greatness," elevation can be used for murderous ends. He says: "Anything that takes us out of ourselves and makes us feel we are listening to something larger is part of morality. It's about pressing the buttons that turn off 'I' and turn on 'we.' " 

Even at its most benign, elevation can seem ridiculous to outsiders. Think of how Obama's opponents love to mock his effect  on people. During the campaign, if your chest was contracting while all about you chests were dilating, you may be a Republican. If you were unmoved by Obama, watching your fellow citizen get all tingly, even fall into a faint (too much vagus stimulation, and you're going down), was maddening. "Other people's reverence seems unctuous and sanctimonious," says Keltner.

Obama himself seemed aware of the dangers that too much elevation might pop his candidacy like a helium balloon hitting a power line. Conservative columnist  Charles Krauthammer described Obama's canny strategy to make his rhetoric more pedestrian for the final months of the campaign.

While there is very little lab work on the elevating emotions, there is quite a bit on its counterpart, disgust. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin has been a leading theorist in the uses of disgust. He says it started as a survival strategy: Early humans needed to figure out when food was spoiled by contact with bacteria or parasites. From there disgust expanded to the social realm—people became repelled by the idea of contact with the defiled or by behaviors that seemed to belong to lower people. "Disgust is probably the most powerful emotion that separates your group from other groups," says Keltner.

Haidt says disgust is the bottom floor of a vertical continuum of emotion; hit the up button, and you arrive at elevation. This could be why so many Obama supporters complained of being sickened and nauseated by the Republican campaign. Seeing a McCain ad or Palin video clip actually felt like being plunged from their Obama-lofted heights.

Disgust carries with it the notion of contamination, which helps to explain the Republicans' obsession with Bill Ayers, Tony Rezko, and Jeremiah Wright and their frustration that more voters didn't have a visceral reaction that Obama had unforgivably sullied himself by association with these men. But this time, elevation won. And expect that on Inauguration Day, even if the weather's frigid, millions will be warmed by that liquid feeling in their chests.

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