If psychology is your game, the opening exchange between Newt Gingrich and John King in last Thursday’s Republican debate is not just this week’s hottest news item, but the most revealing study in human psychology we’ve had in a long time.

Here’s the video

And here’s the text of the exchange:

John King: “Your ex-wife gave an interview to ABC News, another interview with ‘The Washington Post,’ and this story has now gone viral on the Internet. “She says you came to her in 1999 at a time when you were having an affair. She says you asked her for an open marriage. Would you like to take some time to respond to that?”

Newt Gingrich: “No, but I will. I think the destructive vicious negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. I’m appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”

The audience gave Newt a standing ovation. Largely through this exchange Newt catapulted himself to a 12% lead over Mitt Romney, a lead that this morning seems to be following him into Florida.

Newt is a Southerner; I’m a Jew, but my people’s word “chutzpa” applies. Just some of the sordid backstory:

Gingrich was talking to Evangelicals who claim to be our nation’s leading defenders of traditional marriage.

Gingrich left not one freshly-diagnosed wife for a younger woman like Jon Edwards or John McCain, but two.

While he was leaving the second wife for an affair with a younger woman, Newt was running a campaign that was, by his own standards “destructive, vicious and negative” to have Bill Clinton impeached for having sex with a younger woman.

When his second wife asked him how he could maintain such a double standard, he replied that he had truths that no one else was in a position to lead by.

The “painful things” that Newt shames King for bringing up, were not his wives’ illnesses but the pain caused by his own callous actions.

After the rebuke, King looked stunned. He defended himself, but on Gingrich’s terms, in effect accepting Newt’s description of the question as destructive, vicious and negative, but defending his raising them as just passing on what the rest of the media reported. This gave Gingrich an openning to dress King down once more.

A few months back I wrote an article about why psychopaths are so prevalent in positions of power. In it I argued that humans are largely herd animals deferentially following moral leadership, or the semblance of it.

For the most part this herd morality is a useful adaptation. The soldier knows that his is not to wonder why; his is just to do or die, doing what the moral leadership demands of him. Without this adaptation, it would have been hard to win WWII.

Trouble is, we’re not good at distinguishing between real and fake moral leadership. To most of us, those who confidently claim the moral high ground are as moral if not more moral than those who actually demonstrate consistent moral leadership.

With enough chutzpa, any psychopath can voice moral indignation, and hoards of us will give him a standing ovation and rush to elect him to the highest office in the land. Gingrich and other psychopaths in recent history have stumbled on a stunningly reliable form of puncture-proofing: Out-excoriate anyone in your way and there’s no end to the headway you can make.

Apparently vehement religious commitment to moral principle is no protection against the seductive allure of fake moral leaders like Gingrich. After all, fake moral leaders trade in confident sanctimoniousness. The hungry shall soon be eaten, and the fundamentalist, hungry to get you to incant their magic words of salvation are a psychopath’s to eat, since the psychopath is happy to incant whatever gets him what he wants.

If moral leadership can be faked convincingly to large numbers of herding humans what protection can we ever have against fake moral leaders?

First choice would be winning the populace over to the high road. Obama, for example who can only be accused of Leading While Black, has a traditional family and has shown genuine effort to act honorably. He may prevail over fake moral leaders.

He should, but that doesn’t mean he will. Live clean, let your works be seen-that’s certainly the first choice. Be honorable and, unlike Newt, receptive to feedback that you’re dishonorable.

But with fake leaders like Newt around formulaically out-excoriating all challengers, sometimes you can’t afford to be any more receptive than he is. In such cases I like the Political psychologist Drew Westen’s approach, here captured nicely in a blog article by Newsweek’s Sharon Begley:

Do you remember when candidate George W. Bush berated Al Gore during the 2000 presidential debates for alleged funny business in his fund-raising? Bush said, “You know, going to a Buddhist temple and then claiming it wasn’t a fund-raiser isn’t my view of responsibility.” It was a direct attack on the honor of a fellow Southerner, and Gore wasn’t taking it. “You have attacked my honor and integrity,” the vice president shot back. “I think it’s time to teach you a few old-fashioned lessons about character. When I enlisted to fight in the Vietnam War, you were talkin’ real tough about Vietnam. But when you got the call, you called your daddy and begged him to pull some strings so you wouldn’t have to go to war. So instead of defending your country with honor, you put some poor Texas millworker’s kid on the front line in your place to get shot at. Where I come from, we call that a coward.

“When I was working hard, raising my family, you were busy drinking yourself and your family into the ground. Why don’t you tell us how many times you got behind the wheel of a car with a few drinks under your belt? Where I come from, we call that a drunk.

“When I was serving in the U.S. Senate, your own father’s government had to investigate you on the charge that you’d swindled a bunch of old people out of their life savings by using insider knowledge to sell off stocks you knew were about to drop. Where I come from, we call that crooked. So governor, don’t you ever lecture me about character. And don’t you ever talk to me that way again in front of my family or my fellow citizens.”

Don’t remember that reply? There’s a reason: Gore never said anything like it. Challenged by Bush on the temple fundraiser, he instead sidestepped the attack with a lofty but wimpy declaration about wanting “to spend my time making this country even better than it is, not trying to make you out to be a bad person.” The response-that-wasn’t-but-should-have-been is the work of psychology researcher Drew Westen of Emory University, one of many “what ifs” in his new book, “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.” After reading them you won’t be surprised that Westen has been approached by the campaigns of “several” Democratic hopefuls (he is too discrete to say which) for advice on how to make use of findings about how the brain operates in the political arena. Why aren’t Republicans beating a path to his door? Because the GOP has already mastered the dark art of psych-ops-of pushing the right buttons in people’s brains to win their vote.

Westen’s thesis is simple. “A dispassionate mind that makes decisions by weighing the evidence and reasoning to the most valid conclusions bears no relation to how the mind and brain actually work.” That’s true when it comes to choosing a significant other, buying a car, and choosing a president. Madison Avenue has known this for decades. Democrats haven’t. Instead, their strategists start from an 18th-century vision of the mind as dispassionate, making decisions by rationally weighing evidence and balancing pros and cons. That assumption is a recipe for high-minded campaigning-and, often, electoral failure. But by recognizing the strides that neuroscience, psychology and, in particular, the science of decision making have made in recent years, Westen argues, politicians can tap into “the emotional brain” that guides most political decisions.

Find the complete blog article here.