Much has already been written in the past 24 hours about the accusations that Mitt Romney was a teenage tyrant at the Cranbrook School. Former classmates say he bullied a gay student, John Lauber, pinning him to the ground and cutting his bleached blond hair.
Still lingering is the candidate’s explanation that he doesn’t remember any of it.
That episode, the subject of The Washington Post’s front-page story on Thursday, has been the biggest topic of conversation in the political world for the past two days. “As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors,” the paper reported.
The experience was so traumatic that Lauber, who died in 2004, told a classmate in the mid-1990s, “It’s something I have thought about a lot since then,” according to the Post. Thomas Buford, a retired lawyer who was one of Romney’s classmates, told the paper, “To this day it troubles me.” Phillip Maxwell, another student who was there, told ABC News that “when you see somebody who is simply different taken down that way and is terrified and you see that look in their eye, you never forget it.”
Romney, apparently, did forget it.
“I don’t recall the incident myself, but I’ve seen the reports and I’m not going to argue with that,” Romney said in a Fox News interview on Thursday.
It might seem incredible that an episode of bullying that was remembered by so many other people in the room has been forgotten by the Republican candidate for president. In fairness, a lot has happened to Romney since his senior year at Cranbrook — he married, served on Mormon missions, ran a private-equity firm, ran the 2002 Winter Olympics, was the governor of Massachusetts, ran for Senate, and ran for president — twice.
But the science of memory retention suggests that Romney would remember parading his classmates into a room with Lauber to clip his hair, if the experience were significant enough for Romney himself.
“One would think that such an action, if it did occur, would be laden with strong emotions, making it less likely that he would not remember it,” said Steven Lynn, a psychology professor at Binghamton University whose area of expertise is human memory.
“However, people do forget things,” Lynn said.
Lynn explained that “distinctive” events tend to be remembered — for example, it’s highly unlikely that you would forget if a piano fell in front of you while walking down the street, because of the charged feelings that would go along with that experience.
Lynn also rejected the suggestion that Romney has repressed the memory. People are unlikely to forget “highly aversive” situations, he said.
Hara Marano, the editor at large of the publication Psychology Today, who has written extensively about bullies, said scientific research on youth bullying has shown that bullies intend to harm their victims through an “abuse of power.” She said that while teasing can reflect positive traits, changing Lauber’s appearance by cutting his hair is “hard to excuse” even as a senior in high school.
“They tend to have a hostile interpretation of other people’s behavior, the behavior of people they victimize,” Marano said of bullies.
A small number of bullies, Marano said, actually do have a “positive side” — they can be charismatic and verbally sophisticated, and can help people in other situations. Displays of confidence, for example, are a known mark of a bully, she said, even if that confidence is innocuous — like Romney managing the prep school’s hockey team, cheering the football team in the pep club, and persuading the headmaster to put him an advanced-placement program.
“Bullies misperceive how others perceive them,” Marano said. “That’s one of their characteristics.”