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Will You Notice Trump’s Gestures? Or Hillary’s Grimace?

Research suggests body language and facial expressions catch the notice of debate viewers more than candidates’ actual arguments.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Here’s a novel way, come Monday evening, to really get a sense of how Americans are responding to the presidential debate: Make sure you watch it with the sound off.

A sobering study suggests that, while watching candidates for chief executive face off, we pay closer attention to smiles than we do substance, and respond more to arm movements than arguments.

The research, published last year, analyzed real-time reaction to the first debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012. It found the Twittersphere truly lit up in response to “the candidates’ facial expressions and physical gestures.”

These visual cues were “more consistent and robust predictors of the volume and valence of Twitter expression than candidates’ persuasive strategies, verbal utterances, and voice tone,” a research team led by Dhavan Shah of the University of Wisconsin–Madison writes in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

The issue of whether words or images matter more in presidential debates has been, well, debated ever since John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon squared off in 1960. According to conventional wisdom (which may or may not be true) the charismatic Kennedy was seen as the clear winner by those who watched the proceedings on television, while the call was far closer among those who heard it on the radio.

We pay closer attention to smiles than we do substance.

Parsing the relative impact of words vs. images isn’t easy, but, in recent years, a new technology has produced an illuminating new set of data. A good (if imperfect) way to measure what debate watchers are responding to is to note precisely when they feel compelled to post a quick response on their Twitter account.

Shah and his colleagues began by breaking down the initial Obama-Romney debate by camera shot, which resulted in 177 sections ranging in time from five to 30 seconds. The vast majority of these were split-screen shots, in which the candidate who was not speaking was seen listening to his opponent or taking notes.

The researchers categorized each of these short segments in several ways, noting the type of statement the candidate was making (such as attacking his opponent, or presenting a personal narrative), and whether his vocal tone was “menacing or hostile” or “optimistic or cheerful.”

They then measured “the candidates’ nonverbal behavior, particularly facial expressions and body language.” They classified “lower eyebrows, a staring gaze” and “lips pressed firmly together” as “anger/threat displays.” Relaxed smiles and nods were classified as “happiness/reassurance displays.”

The researchers also noted whether, during each segment, the candidate was using “affinity gestures” such as the thumbs-up signal, or “defiance gestures” such as “finger-pointing, wagging, or shaking.”

They then calculated the amount of Twitter traffic containing the works “Romney” or “Obama” during each segment, and for up to 45 seconds thereafter.

“The candidates’ non-verbal communication mattered mightily,” the researchers conclude. Certain memorable memes, such as when Romney, discussing funding for public broadcasting, insisted “I like Big Bird,” generated tons of Tweets.

“Yet the power of these verbal predictors was generally dwarfed by the role of nonverbal factors,” they write, “especially anger/threat displays by Romney and affinity gestures by Obama.”

The results suggest “the Twitter-using public primarily responds to the visual elements of candidate behavior, including facial displays and expressive gestures, and secondarily to verbal elements.”

“This interpretation is consistent with evolutionary analysis of political behavior,” the researchers add, “in which nonverbal communication is regarded as a more reliable predictor of leader traits than verbal utterances.”

Now, the fact that people reacted to body language and facial expressions doesn’t tell us if their response was positive or negative. Habitual gestures such as Donald Trump’s tendency to point (assuming that speaking quirk rears its head again on Monday) may signal strength to his supporters, but seem threatening to his opponents.

But it does suggest we pay close attention to the candidates’ non-verbal behavior, which surely influences our evaluation of them. As articulate as she can be, Hillary Clinton may make her strongest statement simply by throwing up her hands in exasperation.