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.