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"Lightworker", version 2: Obama inspires "elevation"
Posted by: Billy Hollis on Thursday, December 18, 2008

The whole “lightworker” thing quickly became one of the more humorous tags in the presidential campaign. However, the folks that live by “perception is reality” have a point. Obama does make people feel things they don’t otherwise feel. He can inspire emotions that, for example, John Kerry cannot.

Courtesy of, I see that has an article that discusses an emotional state newly labeled as “elevation”:
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."
Of course, the emotion isn’t new. Anyone who has gone through a religious experience will recognize that description. But the article claims that the emotion is just now getting serious study. The researcher claims that transcendent feeling “stimulates our vagus nerve, causing ‘a feeling of spreading, liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat.’”

...our mainstream press apparently got their vagus nerve over-stimulated during the campaign.
The researcher says certain people are particularly good at inspiring those feelings. He calls them "vagal superstars” based on his lab results of stimulation of vagus nerve activity. The article cites Abraham Lincoln as an example, and the researcher believes Obama fits the category as well.

I can’t argue with that. Watching some of the videos of Obama supporters, the dispassionate observer can easily see behavior that is more commonly associated with religious fervor.

The article also discussed the amplification of such emotions in groups:
Keltner says we most powerfully experience these [emotions] 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.
This matches my own long held beliefs about why we experience such emotions, and why they are not an unalloyed positive. Last summer I watched World at War again (which I do about every five years), and was struck by an interview with a German woman about the mass hysteria around Hitler:
When he went up the mountain, I couldn't understand how it was possible that people coiuld shout so much. Yet, when he came close to our group, I too came under his spell and shouted heil just like everyone one. But then, when he was really close, greeting people to his left and right, shaking their hand and exchanging a few words, and he also shook my hand, I suddenly noticed that everybody in his immediate presence was completely silent.

The whole atmosphere grew more and more hysterical. He was interrupted nearly after every phrase by big applause, and women began screaming. It was like mass religious ceremony. And, well, I listened to his speech, and I feeled that more and more excited atmosphere in the hall. And for some seconds, again, and again I had the feeling, what a pity that I can't share that belief of all those thousands of people, that I'm alone, that I"m contrary to all that. It was very funny. I thought, he's talking all that nonsense I know, the nonsense he always talked, but still, I feeled it must be wonderful just to jump into that bubbling pot and be a member of all those who are believers.
For any nuance-impaired leftists, let me be clear: I'm not claiming Obama is anything like Hitler. I'm merely pointing out that transcendent emotions can be manipulated for good or evil, and that some people feel them more than others.

That means we're not all tingly-legged Chris Matthews types. The article acknowledges this:
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.
That sums up my feelings watching those videos quite well. In my own posting, I also added "creepy" to the list.

There's another aspect that's worth noting. Feeling such transcendent emotions about transcendental objects has a key difference from feeling them about actual people and things. In the real world, uplifted emotions only carry one so far, and then nasty old reality sets in:
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. {emphasis mine}
I’m all in favor of influencing folks towards leading a better life. Heck, you could use that as a job description for the typical pastor. Whether that’s a good thing in public policy is a different question.

If a society is going through an existential crisis, the ability to inspire is clearly important in and of itself. Winston Churchill did as much good in WWII through his inspiration of the British people as he did his decision making. Perhaps more, because he made some serious strategic blunders during the war.

You could argue that one of George Bush’s key flaws is that he utterly lacks the ability to inspire. If Obama is at one end of the scale, Bush is at the other. I think it’s likely that the yearning for an inspiring leader after eight years of stumble-tongued Bush was a real factor in Obama’s election.

So I don’t discount Obama’s inspiration abilities. The key question is this: Does Obama have actual skills at leadership and decision making, or does he lack anything of substance beyond his ability to inspire?

We don’t really know the answer, because our mainstream press apparently got their vagus nerve over-stimulated during the campaign. We’ll find out soon. If it's the latter, the current discontent with Obama by his tingly-legged supporters may flower into genuine distaste.

Even if that doesn't happen, I think "elevation", or lack thereof, will be a factor in 2012. Very few can stay "elevated" indefinitely. If Obama supporters don't feel the quasi-religious fervor they felt in 2008, which I think is probably the case, then they might not give nearly as much money, or work nearly as hard for him. He'll have to find other ways of connecting with voters to make up for that.

The key takeaway for conservative and libertarian voters is to understand how much Obama’s current appeal is based on quasi-religious feeling. You can’t argue with that, as those on the right-wing with a religious bent ought to know. Instead, it’s necessary to divest Obama’s policy ideas of any transcendent emotion, and try to move the debate back to reality. Universal healthcare isn’t going to work just because a lot of people have their vagus nerve telling them it will. And patience is warranted, because those quasi-religious feelings will wear off over time.

I’d like to think that the left will finally use this information to critically examine the hypothesis that much of their attachment to leftist philosophy is based on emotion and quasi-religious faith. But they won’t. The very source of the conviction precludes critical examination of it.

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Previous Comments to this Post 

It will be fun when the majority of these dopes come crashing down to earth full of disappointment.

Just this morning, I saw people on the train smirking about some college girl with her giant Obama button. Anyone still wearing those at this point may as well be walking around with sandwich boards that say "I’m an empty vessel" on one side and "My mind is not my own" on the other.

Over stimulated Vagus nerve? In Chris Matthews’ case at least, it was an overstimulated vaginal nerve ;)
Written By: shark
URL: http://
To each his own. My "elevation" button (no, not THAT one; I mean the spiritual/emotional one) is pushed only by people who are PRO-freedom. The people, for example, who rate chapters in Jim Powell’s TRIUMPH OF LIBERTY. If that book were to go through a hundred new editions and revisions in the next hundred years, it’s doubful Obama will ever rate a chapter.
Written By: Bilwick
URL: http://
Billy Hollis - The key question is this: Does Obama have actual skills at leadership and decision making, or does he lack anything of substance beyond his ability to inspire?

If so, he’s kept them well-hidden. Spouting platitudes isn’t leadership. Neither is voting "present".

Billy Hollis - We don’t really know the answer, because our mainstream press apparently got their vagus nerve over-stimulated during the campaign. We’ll find out soon. If it’s the latter, the current discontent with Obama by his tingly-legged supporters may flower into genuine distaste.

Nah. Consider Big Brother: he represented a government that was brutal, oppressive, cruel, murderous, and dishonest in ways that few governments in the history of man have been (though some have come close). Yet, he was loved by the people of Oceania. Why didn’t they hate the "man" who was oppressing them? Simple: they had another (mythical) figure, Goldstein, to hate. The libs are the same. So long as there is a Republican in the national spotlight, be it Newt or W, they will have a target for the hatred that consumes and motivates them, leaving their beloved Lightworker a safe figure for continued worship no matter how much he fouls up.
Written By: docjim505
URL: http://
Exactly docjim505,

People like Hugo or Amidagidadad need the great satan. They can always revive the emotion by claiming their failures were caused by the great satan.

However, I have to add this goes for the Right also. I feel we could have won the Iraq war a lot easier without the Left messing things up even tho the Right made some big blunders. Someone can stir my emotions up, against the left, by talking about it. I gloss right over the Rights big blunders.
Written By: SkyWatch
URL: http://
I will confess that Ronald Reagan used to have that effect on me and a lot of other people. It seems that along with good communication, you need a message of hope. In Reagan’s case there was some reason for that hope.
Written By: kyleN
It will be fun when the majority of these dopes come crashing down to earth full of disappointment.
If he can keep the scandals under wraps, they’ll never be disappointed. All the economic news will mysteriously become positive, most likely before any bill has passed, and remain that way until another Republican is in office. Any real economic problems will be Bush’s fault, and even though none of his bills will actually work he can always cite the fictitious jobs they’re creating.

We won’t go to war, so all the negatives there will be happening in another country and they won’t care. Even if AQ attacks, Bammy just has to buy them off until he gets out of office and he’ll be up for a Nobel.

If it weren’t that the con job inevitably falls apart after a few years, Dems could run the joint continuously.
Written By: ben
URL: http://
Obama will reveal himself as the empty suit he is and a whole bunch of people are going to be very fun to watch.
Written By: RoddyB
URL: http://
This researcher seems to have discovered what any parent of a two year old has experienced. The toddler wants a sucker and the parent says no. They lie down on the floor, kick and scream and cry. When the parent relents and gives them the sucker, the child moves from abject despair to contented delight in a matter of seconds. Most adult liberals are about as emotionally developed as a two year old and they still act like one when they don’t get their way. You can call it "elevation", but for liberals, getting Obama as president is just like the two year old getting its sucker. Liberals are narcissistic and immature by nature and now that they have gotten their way, they will be happy. I don’t think it matters a whit whether or not Obama does any of the things he has promised. They got their sucker and it doesn’t really matter how it tastes.
Written By: jt007
URL: http://
Jonathan’s smoking some seriously good stuff. Incidentally, just what is a "moral psychologist" and how does it compare to an immoral one? All kidding aside, the only elevation Obama’s considering is the percentage he’s going to take out of our paychecks. China’s not going to allow us to default on our Treasury obligations and already they’re alarmed that our capacity to repay is now in question given we’re seeking a national mortgage that exceeds the value of the house.

When I read comments like those of this nutcase, Ludwig von Mises’ observations about public academic institutions sure seems to be validated:

Mises ’66 (Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, revised third edition, p.872)

"Tax-supported universities are under the sway of the party in power. The authorities try to appoint only professors who are ready to advance ideas of which they themselves approve. As all nonsocialist governments are today firmly committed to interventionism, they appoint only interventionists. In their opinion, the first duty of the university is to sell the official social philosophy to the rising generation."

Rather remarkable observations that unfortunately continue to be more accurate.
Written By: HatlessHessian
URL: http://
The only thing I expect to be "elevated" is the blood pressure of millions of Republicans and Independents.

For the Kool-Aid drinkers .. nothing.
Written By: Neo
URL: http://
"stimulates our vagus nerve, causing ’a feeling of spreading, liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat.’"

Isn’t that called vomiting?
Written By: timactual
URL: http://

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