[Cross-posted at The Fallible Mind, my blog at Psychology Today]
The best way to judge people trying to persuade you is with the volume off!
I wrote about Ted Cruz’s repellent facial expressions to show how words and gesture often say different things. I also commented here and in The Washingtonian on the body language of the other presidential candidates.
During the surreal experience that was the first presidential debate each contender’s body language sent one consistent message: Hillary hides and Donald runs on emotion.
Before you assume a defensive crouch (we are talking about partisans after all), let me be clear that my focus is on gesture rather than what the candidates said. In fact, the best way to judge someone who is trying to persuade you is to watch them with the sound turned off.
“Words matter,” Hillary said as the debate approached the 90-minute mark. Indeed, they do. But words can also be misleading, which is why politicians have a reputation for never giving a straight answer. We heard repeated evasions from both sides during the debate. Hillary can’t give a short, declarative answer. But neither can Donald. The two of them talked past each other the whole time.
Trump was loud but modulated in tone and volume, traits usually associated with self-confidence and authority. But his grandiose jabs and karate chops betrayed heightened background emotion. Being driven by emotion is not automatically bad because emotion colors every decision to some degree. Even mathematical thinking, widely considered the most rational kind, is done with an emotional charge, a feeling of whether one is on the right track or not. Conversely, a lack of emotion, as some stroke patients have, leaves a person paralyzed with indecision.
Hillary projected the same emotional tone throughout the night, and her voice stayed in the high register—a place studies show comes across as hectoring and combative. Pundits roundly criticized her vocal delivery at the Democratic convention. “When Hillary speaks,” says branding expert Marc Rudov, “men hear ‘take out the garbage.’” Washington vocal coach Chris Jahnke trains female candidates to lower their voice and slow down because people associate low voices with competence, intelligence, and leadership.
Compared to previous columns in which I noted that Hillary’s forehead was “glacially smooth” as if she had been over-Botoxed, her upper face during the first debate showed more movement. The “wide-eyed enthusiasm” I noted earlier was toned down to good effect. From time to time the corners of her eyes even crinkled in a muted but genuine Duchenne smile.
But what stood out were her attempts to stifle a grin whenever Trump gave a disjointed non-answer or waded into the weeds. She clenched her jaw trying to suppress whatever emotion was clearly playing out on her face. For someone who holds her cards so close, it was something to see that big smile emerge just before she, too, dissembled with a non-answer.
Watch the video when Trump criticizes her temperament. First her lips tighten, then her cheeks swell and she looks to be clenching the back teeth so that she doesn’t burst out laughing. That huge smile then erupts and she uncharacteristically whoops “Whoo! Okay!” and does the “shimmy shoulder” that has gone viral.
Hillary had to come across as more likable, but she didn’t succeed. It is difficult to like someone who keeps her guard up and reveals so little. There was lots of nodding, and shaking her head as if full of regret at Trump’s outrageous comments. But it came across as smug. As a list checker she was measured. Throughout the evening she remained calm. But rarely did any emotion seep through. During the most emotionally laden topic of the evening, race and the black shootings, she stayed anodyne and unruffled.
As for Trump, the split screen did him no favor. He made faces. He rolled his eyes. He grimaced, tightening his lips into a horizontal line. Shifting his weight made him look impatient. Most tellingly his mentalis muscle located at the point of the chin contracted whenever Hilary veered into territory he wasn’t comfortable with. Mentalis contraction signals emotion roiling below.
Generally, Trump’s body language stayed in register with his repetitive spiel. Either he is impervious to facts or genuinely believes what he says. Perhaps through repetition it has come to seem real. My colleague Art Markmen has written about how people are inclined to interpret evidence in ways that are consistent with their desires. They don’t recognize that their own beliefs have influenced their evaluation, and so they end up believing what they want to believe.