So Much for “Thinking” About Political Candidates: The Unconscious Rules

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Study shows expression just as important as words in presidential debates

…voters pick up on nonverbal communications as much as a candidate’s rhetoric.

When it comes to presidential candidates in nationally televised debates, though, a series of studies…are showing the nonverbal repertoires that make up a presidential candidate’s communication style are important influencers of voter reaction.

What Bucy and his colleagues discovered is candidates’ facial expressions, gestures and voice tone do as much do as much or more to drive public reaction to the debates than what the candidates actually say.

“This frustrates some people who study media and politics because they want the discussion to be all about the issues…What we’re documenting is, in fact, people respond a lot to behavior. Not everybody pays really that close of attention to elections or knows all their party’s positions on the issues, but they can get a sense of the candidates’ traits by observing competitive political behavior. And traits are reliable predictors of candidate support.”

Using the communications theory of nonverbal expectancy violations, Bucy tracked how sensitive viewers were to what was happening in the debates if there was just a hint of the unexpected in political performance..”When a violation occurs, there is increased visual attention to it as people attempt to figure out what is going on…As a consequence of all this scrutiny, usually there is a negative evaluation of the person committing the violation.”

Most of these expressions fit into three distinct display types — anger/threat, happiness/reassurance and fear/evasion. The public responds to leaders who exhibit more happiness/reassurance while challengers, as rivals to power, will typically display more anger/threat….But neither are expected to express fear/evasion and are not looked upon favorably if they do.

“You can analyze at the words all you want to and write all kinds of stuff, but this is what people pick up on, at least in televised debates. That’s what we learned from the eye tracking and focus group analysis.”

…people appear to respond to facial displays and gestures more than voice tone and rhetorical strategies. Viewers process political communication holistically, and if you look only at the words spoken, you get an incomplete picture of what’s going on.”

…Effect on voting…people don’t always want to admit it, but voters are influenced by what they observe in debates and televised coverage of politics. Even if some will acknowledge the candidate’s nonverbal communication did have an impact on subsequent evaluations, most will deny any direct influence of visual information.

“It’s a fundamental irony of American politics…We exalt the word and the issues while ignoring or denigrating the visuals. Yet we’re often more influenced by the verbal factors.

“…Nonverbal influence, particularly in those moments, can give someone a feel for a candidate they might be opposed to but looks on paper like they are for what they stand for.”

Bucy said political candidates and their advisers would be smart to realize the importance of communication style to the persuadable segment of the electorate. But there are always traditionalists who will insist that it’s the message, not the delivery, that matters most.

“That’s what the major, agenda-setting print media still focuses on…Print journalism, even in the digital era, is not generally set up to emphasize or replay or obsess about the visual. But for citizens who are paying attention, the traits communicated by nonverbal behavior are consequential.”

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