Thursday, October 02, 2008

Nonverbal Behavior during the VP Debate

I watched all of the debate on C-Span to avoid the commercials and running commentary across the bottom of the screen. I also chatted online with friends who were also watching the debate. I had a great time chatting it up with them.

For me, the defining moment came somewhere in the second half of the debate when Biden spoke about the accident that killed his wife and infant daughter, leaving him a single father of two children. The way he spoke about that said volumes and I could see that he was getting choked up. He wiped a tear from his eye while Palin robotically repeated her memorized sound bytes.

Her non-response was scary. She showed no compassion. Zero empathy. She could have shown sensitivity. That might have won over a skeptical audience. It would have been disarming. But no - she ignored him.

And why? I think it was because she didn't hear a single word he said all debate long. She spent virtually all of the debate, at least while he was speaking, looking down at what were presumably her notes and crib sheet.

Unlike Biden, who looked at her while she spoke, Palin rarely if ever, looked at him while he spoke.

I think that's because unlike Biden who is capable of listening and formulating his next thoughts simultaneously, Palin could not do both at the same time. She could not both listen and think of what she was going to say next.

That's what I think was going on. But, the nonverbal behavior expert in me says we can look at it another way — through the lens of the visual dominance ratio.

What's the visual dominance ratio? In short, it's something we psychologists, well, really only those who are exceptionally well-versed in research on nonverbal behavior (NVB), know is an important aspect of eye contact.

See, people are primates - indeed - animals. And animals communicate dominance with eye contact. Staring is a threat. Well, it's a little different with people. When we stare, or look intensely, it can be both domineering and also intimate. If someone holds a gaze unbroken for longer than 2 seconds - they're either going to fight or make love.

The significance of eye contact is a tricky one then. Sometime during the late 60s and early 70s when NVB research was in its prime, a couple of ingenious social psychologists unlocked some of its mystery.

Through careful experimentation, they found out that eye contact means different things - sends a different message to others - based on how much a person looks while speaking compared to looks while listening. For each person engaged in a conversation, such as the debate tonight, a visual dominance ratio can be calculated.

The higher the ratio - the more dominant, high status and powerful they are perceived to be. People who are dominant, high status, and powerful have higher ratios. It's probably also true for people who just think they are - i.e. the confident.

Typically the ratio ends up being around 1.0 for dominant, powerful, high status people. The subordinate person in the conversation tends to show a ratio of around .80. What this means is that the more dominant person tends to spend just about the same amount of eye contact with the other person regardless of whether they are speaking or listening.

Palin, by spending so much time looking down rather than at Biden when he spoke, signaled dominance, power and status. All things she needed to convey. But, her visual dominance ratio was skewed so high that it actually made her come off as arrogant. And you don't need me to tell you that's bad. Her condescending tone at various points, her smug winks, her eye rolls over her shoulder in Biden's direction — those rather further reinforce that.

The visual dominance ratio is at the heart of why you need to make eye contact during interviews. It suggests confidence. But you also need to make eye contact while listening to the person who is speaking to you — it conveys that you respect them, that you think what they have to say is important. Just don't do it more than you do while you're the one speaking. If you look more while you listen than you do while you speak, you'll come off as servile. If you don't do it enough, you'll come off as arrogant.


Giftbearer said...

That's very interesting! I also noticed that part where Biden almost started to cry and Palin behaved as if she was totally unaffected.

My impression of her overall is that she is really uptight and is so afraid of being taken advantage of that she overcompensates by acting overly indifferent. She definitely has deep trust issues and problems with intimacy.

Also the colloquialisms she shows don't win her any points; they kind of make her seem less intelligent. I'm a little surprised her campaign manager hasn't addressed that with her.

GlitterCritter said...

That's a very interesting analysis. I'm taking it that S. Pailin came across as arrogant, then?

RunzwithScissors said...

Interesting. The winks really turned me off. But I also spent half the debate yelling at Biden "look at the camera!", since he seemed to be looking at Gwen Ifill (or was it the audience?) , while Palin engaged the camera the entire time.

His choking up, though, was so much more genuine than all her fake folksiness.

may said...

I think your assessment of Palin's performance is right on the money. I have zero experience other than the fact that I'm a human being, but your explanation rings true to me.

I posted in the Etsy forums that I wondered what you thought of one move she repeated, but your last post was 2 hours ago so I didn't know if you'd be back.

Here's what I meant:

Several times she seemed to lean on the podium (or lectern or whatever) and shift her weight off of one foot while glancing at Biden.

I went to YouTube and looked through the video. I found these examples of what I mean. I put the approximate time to cue it up for each one.





I actually paused the TV while we were watching the debate live the first time I noticed it and watched it again because it stuck out to me. You're the expert. What do you see?

Also, while looking through the video of the entire debate on YouTube I had the sound off. It was much easier to spot (for me) that way.

Side note - I've read your blog several times over the last few months. I feel like I've looked at a zillion of them lately, but I do come back to yours every now and again. There was one time someone posted about Newfoundland's in the Etsy forums and I thought "I just saw a blog on Newfie's!" So I checked and it was yours. Of course, it also turned out to be your post in the forums!

Do I win for longest comment ever?

BaldyLocks said...

I really enjoyed this. I have little clue about reading body language.

Great post!

Honeydew Studio said...

Really interesting! Thanks for the great analysis.

dj said...

You are so right! Biden to me came across very genuine. Palin even when being positive, her emotions seemed forced.

Christie Cottage said...


Just so you know, if I was addressing the world via television in heels, I would have been sitting on that podium! LOL

Sad about Biden's loss. Things that cut the heart, never truly heal.

Keala Legacy Creations said...

Very very interesting!

I had noticed that Biden looked at Palin much more than she looked at him. The same went for the Obama/McCain debate. Obama looked at McCain while he was speaking, but McCain didnt even glance his way. And yes... it came off as arrogant and told me that McCain/Palin just really dont care.

I also found Palins quip remarks, eye rolls and smirks as condescending and of bad taste.

Keala Legacy Creations said...

Biden however, showed me a very personal and human side. He showed confidence when he was speaking. He showed Palin respect by looking at her when she spoke and he did very well when it came down to treading softly when speaking directly to her.

Field Notes said...

Thank you for all the great comments. You've giving me even more to think about.

And, yes, may, I think you may have won the longest comment ever award.. though I know of at least a few others that are right up there with you!

Field Notes said...

You know giftbearer, your comment reminds me that sometimes insecure people, who may doubt themselves and their ability (and who in Sarah's position wouldn't at some level?), sometimes display over-confidence as a salve to cope with deep feelings of inadequacy. I'm not saying that is for sure a part of her psychological makeup, but it is a possibility given what I have seen.

Stockton said...

Interesting stuff. I was *glued* to that debate (even though I probably should have been watching the Canadian one!)

Twice said...

Very interesting post. It rings true to me as well.

That folksy stuff was so forced, I can't even believe commentators are taking it seriously. Then again, I'm sure I'm one of those, uh, "liberal elites" they keep talking about.

However, in terms of strategy, I think Biden did awesome and Palin did very well too - as well as she could have. She completely deflected questions she didn't want to answer and thus it wasn't a disaster. Which is just as well or that would be all everyone was taking about. Instead, I hear lots of talk abot Biden seeming presidential, etc.

kim* said...


Andrea said...

I thought the folksy comments were forced and phony. If people believed that's how Palin *really* speaks, then I think they're just plain naive, and I suspect the American public isn't that naive in general.

But the thing that really *bugged* me to the point of feeling uncomfortable, is how Sarah Palin's gaze was like shooting laser beams through the TV at the viewers. I was really uncomfortable, like when someone is a close talker. Too much forced intimacy.

Biden, on the other hand, had a much more natural sense of looking at Palin, at the moderator, at the audience, and at the camera.

Can't believe Palin's handlers thought that would be an effective approach. She wasn't nearly as charming as she was during her Convention speech.

Chris Stone said...

Interesting write up. I listened to the debates... don't have a t.v.... and was amazed at the differences between biden and palin, with biden being the clear winner. (i am biased, but i was listening for disparity on either side.) and was rather surprised that people thought she did well. i credited the disparity to body language. now, i think its due to looks.

Waterrose said...

Very enlightening. I also paid attention to the fact that she did not look at Biden. I watched that because I also noted that McCain did not look at Obama during the first debate.

What I thought was interesting was the way in which the podiums were set up for Biden and Palin. They were set so that eye contact could be made, sort of angled toward one another. If you look at the podiums in the McCain/Obama debate the podiums were set to only face the commentator.

Fuzzy Izmit said...

Very interesting and insightful analysis! I agree that she looked awkward and ill at ease.