Why We Love to Loathe John Edwards: It's Science

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Chuck Burton / AP

Former Senator John Edwards, center, leaves a federal courthouse with attorney Abbe Lowell, right, after a hearing in Greensboro, N.C., on Dec. 16, 2011

Update Appended: May 31, 2012

Well, at least he didn't say he was going to spend the rest of his life searching for the real killers. The news on Thursday that John Edwards had been acquitted of one charge of accepting an illegal campaign contribution and that the jury had deadlocked on the other five charges may or may not have been cause for the former Senator and current pariah to make a statement, but the one he made was oddly atonal. "I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong, and there is no one else responsible for my sins," he said, which was a good place to start — and stop.

He went on, however, to thank his parents for the wonderful job they did raising him and his siblings, which rang vaguely self-celebratorily considering that the most famous member of that brood had spent the past several weeks on trial. He looked forward to the work he can do on behalf of poor children around the world, which seemed both selfless (good) and grandiose (bad) since he seemed to be continuing to sell himself as a public figure and a social force, when most people just want him to go away.

He thanked all of his children by name, including Quinn, the child he had with mistress Rielle Hunter, whose presence in his life was the very thing he was trying to cover up with the money that may or may not have been an illegal campaign contribution. Once he began naming his kids it was imperative, for the sake of decency and the feelings of the blameless Quinn herself, that he include her. And it is cynical in the extreme to question his sincerity when he described her as "my precious Quinn, who I love more than any of you can ever imagine." But a more self-aware ex-pol might have realized that in this case less was more, and simply thanking all of his children collectively and namelessly might have avoided the sense that he was using Quinn to make a case for himself — which is the kind of thing people have come to expect from him.

The worst thing about Edwards' statement, however, was its delivery. It still carried the pacing and the confidence and the barely-contained sunniness that is essential on the stump but all-wrong in a putative mea culpa. It was a reminder of the reasons Edwards has always elicited a sort of primal loathing from his former national constituency that other philandering fools — Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton, even the risible Anthony Wiener — never did.

It's fair and decent to wish John Edwards well. Retrying him on the remaining five counts would be a strain on both the public purse and public patience, to say nothing of his family. And true humility, coupled with Edwards' undeniable ambition and talent, may indeed allow him to accomplish fine and worthy things in the decades ahead. But, as TIME reported several months ago, there are some complex and primal reasons people recoil from him today, and in some subtle ways, always did.

John Edwards is the putrefied meat of the American political system — literally, as far as your brain is concerned. Think about Edwards for a moment — the perfect hair, the honey voice, the oleaginous smile. Your lip curled ever so slightly, didn't it? A teensy bit of bile may have risen in your throat. The lip curl is a threat display, the bile an attempt to purge a toxin. Both were triggered at least partly by your prefrontal cortex and your temporal lobes — and both would have occurred had you smelled a piece of food gone bad.

Edwards, the onetime North Carolina Senator and serial presidential candidate, was back in the news last week as he motioned for another postponement of his campaign-finance trial, set to begin Jan. 30 on charges that he illegally used campaign donations to cover up his affair with a staffer — with whom he later had a child. While his wife was dying of cancer.

Nasty stuff, to be sure, more than enough to exclude a man permanently not just from the political arena but also from polite company. And yet there's a certain deliciousness to the way we loathe Edwards. We dismiss a mass killer like Osama bin Laden with a simple "Rot in hell." We dismiss O.J. Simpson with a simple "Rot in jail." And before you say the difference is that those thugs have at least been dealt with, consider that the thrice-married and repeatedly unfaithful Newt Gingrich behaved nearly as despicably as Edwards, yet he is making a credible, if fading, run for the White House. Edwards, by contrast, can't walk into a restaurant without the risk of getting pelted by dinner rolls.

There are a lot of things that make the former Senator the pariah he is, and the brain is indeed one of the biggest players. It was only in the past decade or so, with the widespread use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), that neurologists discovered the overlapping circuitry that governs morality and disgust. In one study, conducted in many parts of the world, pairs of subjects are given a quantity of cash to share — say, $100 — with one of them getting to decide how the sum will be split and the other having the right to accept or reject the offer. If the deal is accepted, they both get the cash; if it's rejected, they both get nothing.

On average, subjects turn down any proposed division that offers them less than 43% of the pot — meaning they walk away from a free $43 simply because the other guy is getting $57. And when the subjects who reject the deal are scanned by fMRIs, their brains show pronounced activity in the disgust regions.

"There is literal disgust and moral disgust, and the two overlap," says Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. "Betrayal, hypocrisy, certain kinds of baseness trigger the brain's moral response."

Our umbrage isn't reserved solely for situations in which our ox is the one that's getting gored. A 2006 study conducted in the U.K. found similar activity in the brain's disgust lobes when people observed someone else getting cheated. What's more, the more honorably the victim had behaved, the more powerfully the observers' brains would respond. By contrast, victims who had themselves cheated someone else earlier in the study would elicit a much weaker neurological response. Edwards, a bad guy who cheated a sickly and suffering woman, practically makes our brain lobes explode.

The hypothetical consequences of Edwards' shabby behavior only make things worse. He wasn't willing simply to burn down his marriage and career; he was also willing to take the country — or at least the blue-state half of it — with him. "Edwards' affair surely would have come out if he'd won the nomination, and he'd surely have lost the election as a result," Haidt says. "The country went through this already with Bill Clinton, and it arguably cost Al Gore the 2000 election." That's not something Democrats in particular are inclined to forgive — even though they ultimately won the 2008 election — and it may explain why they seem to loathe the man who was their party's 2004 vice-presidential nominee far more than Republicans do.

For all these things, the biggest factor in the utter destruction of the Edwards brand might be the way the inner man clashed so dramatically with the veneer he presented to the world — and that's not the case with most political scoundrels. Was it any surprise that Clinton eventually came to grief over a White House affair? Is it any surprise when Gingrich, who just ain't a very nice guy, acts that way?

"It's a question of what these people are selling," says psychologist Michael Schulman, author of Bringing Up a Moral Child. "Clinton was selling a kind of goodness, but also a sexuality with it. There was a sense he couldn't help himself. Gingrich you expect to be a club fighter. Edwards sold goodness in a sort of beatific way, so when we find out he's so soiled and corrupt, there's nothing left but loathing."

The camera-ready looks that made Edwards so appealing to juries and, at one time, voters may have made that unmasking all the worse. Haidt points to a widely cited 1975 study in which subjects were asked to impose sentences on imaginary defendants, based only on a description of the imaginary crime and a photo of a person who was said to be the perp. As a rule, the subjects conformed to the general human bias of favoring attractive people over less-attractive ones — and tended to impose more lenient sentences on them as a result. The only exception was when the crime was fraud and was said to have been abetted by the crooks' good looks. Then the study subjects threw the book at them.

"When the people in the scenarios used their attractiveness in their crimes, it switched the valence," says Haidt. "They actually got a heavier sentence." Edwards, narcissistic pretty boy, surely won a lot of early supporters that way and is just as surely paying the price now.

No matter how Edwards emerges from his criminal trial, he may not be destined to spend his entire life banished to the fringes of the national village. Paradoxically, the more his critics — to say nothing of his prosecutors — are seen to be piling on, the more our temporal lobes and prefrontal cortices may switch the valence once more, turning even a deeply loathed perpetrator into an unlikely victim. It would be a slow and circuitous road to redemption, and it's by no means guaranteed. But for a man who's justly fallen as far as Edwards has, it may be the only one.

The original version of this story has been updated to include the verdict reached May 31, 2012 in the John Edwards trial