Nonverbal Behavior and Election Outcomes

silhouette-774836_640By Humintell Director David Matsumoto, Ph.D

“A politician is someone who can tell you to go to hell in a way that makes you look forward to the trip.”

Along my travels around this country and around the world I came along the quote above and it has always stuck in my mind. Now with the crazy 2016 presidential election winding down (or winding up to a frenzy, depending on your point of view), I have been thinking about this quote a lot.

I believe what we have all been witness to in the last few months is truly the power of nonverbal behavior in shaping perceptions, preferences, and opinions. How the presidential candidates behave in terms of their nonverbal demeanor – their facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, body postures, positioning and interpersonal spacing – all have provided important cues to not only each candidate’s personality, motivations, and intentions, but also to the quality of their interpersonal relationships and the dynamics of that relationship. But while this is true most of the time in general, I believe that these perceptions have come to far outweigh any other factor that may (or should) be considered when making decisions about who to vote for. These other factors, for instance, might include the policies they are advocating for the future, how policies have worked or not in the past, and evidence concerning the candidates’ competence and effectiveness in their positions in the past. Surely, these other factors should also be given consideration in making voting decisions. This election, far more than any other election in recent history, seems to be more about impressions of the personalities of the individual candidates rather than factors such as future intended policies or previous competence or effectiveness. And judgments about the impressions of their personalities is largely driven by nonverbal behavior.

In fact there is a large research literature spanning several decades that has examined the influence of nonverbal behavior on voting preferences, election outcomes, and judgments of trustworthiness and credibility (click HERE for sampling of these studies). These studies have shown that people reliably make judgments of trustworthiness, credibility, and liking from facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, and overall demeanor and style. Moreover, these judgments have direct effects on voting preferences and election outcomes.

Many politicians know this and surround themselves with consultants who help politicians change or adjust their nonverbal behavior so as to look and sound more credible, trustworthy, and likable than they truly are. And many are very good at that game, especially polished politicians with years or decades of experience. Some politicians also strategically attempt to degrade the perceived trustworthiness, credibility, or suitability for office of their opponents, rather than debate on future policy or past competence or effectiveness. In this election cycle, it sure seems we are inundated with these perceptions, and NOT focusing on issues concerning future directions, policies that work or don’t work, and how exactly life will be better for all of us.

Don’t get me wrong; I am of course a large proponent of the power of nonverbal behavior. But it seems to me that elections, especially this one, should be about more than our impressions of people that may or may not be artificially produced. Perhaps we should spend more time examining what kinds of policies they advocate that would affect positive change, which ones would not, what has been effective in the past, and what has not, over and above the rhetoric. I think the American public deserves that.

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