Here's the psychological reason Elizabeth Warren's speeches leave you feeling goosebumps

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty ImagesThe Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren at a campaign stop at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, on May 16.
  • Elizabeth Warren was a standout in the first round of debates.
  • Her rhetoric features a signature mix of vision statements and policy specifics.
  • This is a display of toggling between different “levels of construal” – going between the abstract and the concrete.
  • Effective leaders can do both.
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The first round of 2020 Democratic Party debates has come and gone.

Among the field of 20, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts stood out with her policy ideas, which clearly set the agenda on the first night and maybe the second, too.

It started with her opening statement.

“When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple,” she said. “We need to call it out. We need to attack it head-on. And we need to make structural change in our government, in our economy, and in our country.”

Big structural change – that’s one of her two main calling cards. The other: “I’ve got a plan for that.”

What Warren is demonstrating, to the eye test, is a capacity documented in the psychology literature as being essential for effective leadership: being able to go up and down levels of construal.


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Construal is how abstract or specific a statement or idea is. High construal is the stuff of vision, grand strategy, and generalization. Low construal is the concrete, the detailed, the nitty-gritty execution.

From their perch atop hierarchies, leaders are contextually nudged toward high-construal stuff, e.g., vision and dreams and the like. They get in trouble when they can’t make it down into detail. Batia Wiesenfeld, a management professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, held up Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes as a cautionary tale – focusing on massive growth while skimping on product specifics.

Among the political field, without naming names, it’s easy to spot candidates who can pronounce or denounce from on high but aren’t getting into detail.

Warren, on the other hand, is alternating from getting into the weeds to speaking from on high.

Again, from the first debate, her take on “Medicare for All”:

“I spent a big chunk of my life studying why families go broke. And one of the number one reasons is the cost of healthcare, medical bills. And that’s not just for people who don’t have insurance. It’s for people who have insurance.

“Look at the business model of an insurance company. It’s to bring in as many dollars as they can in premiums and to pay out as few dollars as possible for your healthcare. That leaves families with rising premiums, rising co-pays, and fighting with insurance companies to try to get the healthcare that their doctors say that they and their children need. Medicare for All solves that problem.”

That’s the virtue of being a researcher turned politician. The rubber meets the road. Vision turns into execution. Dreams become plans.

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