When Nonverbal Behaviors Overshadow Substance in Presidential Debates
Evidence from past studies has shown that nonverbal behaviors of political candidates can significantly affect viewer evaluations during debates. Remember President Obama’s performance during the first presidential debate in 2012? The media scrutinized his detached and dominated style; The New York Times asserted that the president’s first encounter with Mitt Romney was “arguably the most dismal night of Mr. Obama’s political career.”
Zijian Harrison Gong of the University of Tampa and Erik P. Bucy of Texas Tech University joined forces to study the consequences of display appropriateness in the nonverbal behavior of candidates during presidential debates. Bucy’s interest in nonverbal behavior dates back to his dissertation research in the late 1990s, when he noticed that, despite the rise of networked media technologies, television and its capacity to vividly display close-up images of politicians continued to be the most dominant medium of political communication. In their study of the 2012 presidential debates, Gong and Bucy employ a variety of analytical techniques to find out whether viewers pay more attention to inappropriate political behavior than to appropriate political behavior.
In their article, the authors describe inappropriate political behavior as nonverbal displays that are not compatible with the intended message and/or the tone of the setting in which they happen. For example, during the first debate between Obama and Romney, viewers widely criticized Obama’s behavior, which they deemed disengaged. Critics said he spent too much time looking at his notes and avoiding eye contact and, while he winced when Romney attacked him, he did not fire back.
Other studies on nonverbal communication in politics have separated the visual from the verbal channels of communication. Prior research has also revealed that politicians’ facial expressions and emotional appropriateness on television affect public perceptions. Gong and Bucy’s new approach to this topic uses a mixed-methods design to integrate the visual and the verbal—a controlled eye-tracking experiment followed by a series of focus group discussions. (The study was also preceded by a detailed nonverbal content analysis of the debates.)
To determine differences in viewer attention to appropriate versus inappropriate displays, the researchers tracked specific eye movements during viewing, hypothesizing that viewers focus more often and longer on inappropriate displays than appropriate displays.
Because verbal narration and inappropriate visual displays usually compete for viewer attention, the authors also theorized that in televised debate encounters, when two candidates are shown simultaneously in a split-screen format, appropriate displays generate better recall of verbal information than inappropriate displays.
Finally, based on past research findings that party affiliation can influence a viewer’s evaluation of political performance, the researchers also hypothesized that party affiliation affects viewer evaluations of the way a candidate acts—partisans evaluate their own candidate’s displays less harshly than displays by the opponent, regardless of their appropriateness.
People Pay More Attention to Inappropriate Displays
In their eye-tracking experiment, Gong and Bucy found that people tend to fixate on inappropriate nonverbal behavior more often and for longer periods of time than they focus on appropriate behavior. The researchers also found that people remember candidates’ statements better when they are engaged in appropriate nonverbal behavior, and retention of information suffers when candidates behave inappropriately.
The researchers’ last hypothesis was only partially supported. They found that there were no significant differences in evaluation of candidates based on participants’ party affiliations. Evaluations were not significantly different between Democrats and Republicans, but Republicans and Independents did significantly differ in their evaluation of inappropriate displays.
What the Focus Groups Said
Focus groups conducted for the study (involving a total of 54 people in groups of four or five) supported the above findings. After watching a representative clip from the first debate, focus group participants made some unexpected and nuanced observations about candidate behavior during the 2012 debates. Participant Douglas said he thought Obama deserved a dip in the polls following his first debate performance, not because he appeared weak or incompetent, but “because of his body language and his attitude—it was like ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about and I don’t care what you have to say.’ For me, he did not take what Romney was saying seriously.”
Douglas was not the only one left with this impression. Time and again, focus group participants said they thought Obama appeared uninterested, dismissive, and disrespectful toward Romney. Participants even called Obama’s performance in the clip “unprofessional” and “unpresidential.”
In responding to a different clip from the third debate, however, participants said they thought Romney’s behavior was inappropriate, noting his rapid blink rate (a sign of either stress or mental activity), the rehearsed quality of his answers, and his hurried talking pace.
Significance of Findings
According to the researchers, understanding the influence of nonverbal communication on citizen perceptions of candidates is important for several reasons. First, voters rely heavily on television as a primary source of political information, and television is a visual medium. Nonverbal behavior is generally excluded from written records of debates, so only listening to or reading about political debates would not provide voters with enough information to fully evaluate debate dynamics. This research found solid evidence that viewers of televised political encounters not only notice candidates’ inappropriate nonverbal behavior, but also respond to it. Moreover, party affiliation had less impact on responses to inappropriate behavior than expected—a timely warning for this year’s presidential candidates.