LAS CRUCES – The morning after the first presidential debate, a group of psychologists, cognitive scientists and communications experts got together on the internet to discuss their observations of the candidates. Tim Ketelaar, an associate professor of psychology at New Mexico State University, was part of the four-person panel.
Ketelaar is an expert in the science of human emotions and in facial expressions and microexpressions. Ketelaar was trained by Paul Ekman, one of the leading experts on microexpressions and a chief consultant on the Fox show, “Lie to Me.”
“Anyone watching the debate will form judgments of truthfulness largely based upon whether they’re seeing lots of negative emotion — we tend to assume that person is untrustworthy, the more negative emotion we see,” Ketelaar said. “And we tend to assume a person is more trustworthy the more positive emotion we see. That’s a crude simplification, but it tends to be the case.”
At Monday night’s debate, neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump displayed a lot of negative emotion in their facial expressions, Ketelaar said.
“We saw more positive emotion in Hillary Clinton’s face than we’ve seen before,” he said. “She smiled a little bit more than we normally see her smile.”
Ketelaar didn’t observe anything in the candidates’ facial expressions that seemed to him to be determinative.
“I don’t feel like the debate was won or lost on the basis of facial expressions,” he said. “There was no big loser, in terms of facial displays. But I thought Clinton had a slight advantage, in terms of positive emotions such as smiling.”
Ketelaar also observed a few indications of contempt — which, in Clinton, typically was expressed through a forced smile, while Trump nervously took drinks of water. However, both candidates showed they have pretty good “poker faces,” Ketelaar said — citing Clinton’s reaction when Trump alluded to Bill Clinton’s infidelity, as well as Trump’s reaction to Clinton’s speculation on his tax returns.
Erik Bucy, the Marshall and Sharleen Formby Regents Professor of Strategic Communication at Texas Tech University, measured voters’ real-time responses to the candidates’ nonverbal behavior and tone of voice.
“Overall, I would describe Hillary as the Happy Warrior,” Bucy said. “This is an archetype that Ronald Reagan really seemed to personify and used it to win over his critics or people on the fence. It seemed to soften the antagonism of people who were his opponents. Last night, we saw Hillary Clinton move in that direction; we’ll have to see whether she can continue it in the next couple of debates.”
By contrast, Bucy perceived Trump’s role as the Blustering Challenger.
“He never seemed to get out of that mode,” Bucy said. “He just doesn’t seem very well-suited for the reassurance, and the positive, hope-filled expressiveness that a lot of undecided voters might be looking for. He’s stuck in a mode that works for partisans. We’ve seen through research that anger/threat displays really seem to resonate with the base.”
When Trump spoke, Bucy noted that he tended to show his lower teeth — indicative of aggression. Bucy said Trump’s frequently “boisterous or bullying mode” is characteristic of challengers to power, as opposed to power-holders.
Kristine Muñoz, an expert in communications, discourse analysis and persuasion at the University of Iowa, examined the candidates’ interruptions, intonation and gender expectations — a consideration for the first time during this year’s campaign.
In looking at the frequency of interruptions, Muñoz examined each of the 111 times the candidates interrupted one another, or were interrupted by the moderator, Lester Holt. In total, Trump interrupted 62 times, compared to Clinton’s 19 interruptions. On seven occasions, the candidates engaged in what Muñoz calls “verbal chicken,” devolving into a prolonged shouting match in which both tried to talk over the other.
“Going into the debate, I believed Trump needed to avoid coming across as a bully, and Clinton needed to avoid being seen as a bossypants,” Muñoz said. “Trump interrupted far more than Clinton or Holt. It would’ve meant something quite different if they were anywhere close. But I would say she very definitely avoided being a bossypants, but he did not avoid being a bully. There are some places in the transcript where it’s quite clear he bullied by interruption.”
Simon DeDeo, a cognitive scientist at the Santa Fe Institute and Carnegie Mellon University, participated in the discussion from Denmark. Examining transcripts of the debate, he looked at the language the candidates used and compared it to language used in presidential debates going back 40 years.
“One of the most common things that distinguished these two candidates were the pronouns they used,” DeDeo said. “Trump, over and over again, is talking in terms of ‘they,’ ‘them,’ and, interestingly, in terms of ‘I,’ the first-person pronoun. Whereas Hillary Clinton is using terms like ‘we,’ and the word ‘us.'”
DeDeo noted that his quantitative analysis revealed something he believes may have been clear to viewers — Trump’s use of “look” vs. Clinton’s use of “think” — and, more frequently, “I think.”
However, much of the language used by the candidates was shockingly undistinguishable from one another — in terms of the words they each used. Not since the Bush/Gore debates of 2000 have candidates used language that DeDeo describes as “bland,” or hard to distinguish the candidates by their use of individual words.
“In terms of the words they use, I’d say these candidates are in a race to the center,” DeDeo said.
DeDeo noted that language lacks a richness present in presidential debates from years past.
The next presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 9 in St. Louis, Missouri.
Damien Willis may be reached at 575-541-5468, firstname.lastname@example.org or @damienwillis on Twitter.
©2016 the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.)
Visit the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.) at www.lcsun-news.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.