Laughing Matters in Primary Debates: Candidates’ Eyes Are Key to Laughter

Released: 8/11/2011 3:25 PM EDT
Source Newsroom: University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
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Citations Politics and Life Sciences (Sept. 2010)

Newswise — FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – While watching this season’s political debates, be sure to watch the candidates’ eyes. When presidential candidates employ humorous comments during televised primary debates, what they do with their eyes is key to the strength of audience laughter, according to University of Arkansas political scientist Patrick A. Stewart. The speakers’ eyes offer nonverbal cues to the nuances of humorous comments.

In a study on the use of humor by candidates, Stewart monitored 10 primary debates leading up to the 2008 presidential election. He focused on nonverbal cues related to humorous comments, a little-researched area.

Stewart is available for interview before or after the Republican candidates’ debate in Iowa on Aug. 11.

“Laughing matters on the campaign trail, not only for bringing supporters together but also for defining leaders,” Stewart wrote.

In egalitarian societies, such as the United States, social science research has shown that there is a preference for leaders who display what social scientists call “happiness/reassurance,” which suggests the ability to form alliances and work collaboratively. In the competitive environment of a debate, nonverbal cues can signal such egalitarian values within humorous comments, even when the humor is at the expense of an opponent.

Nonverbal behavior, such as an upward turn of the lips or crinkling of the eyes, signals the emotional intent of a humorous comment, whether the comment is self-deprecating or critical of an opponent. While a speechwriter may script humorous comments and a candidate may rehearse them, Stewart noted, “The ability to successfully deliver such comments nonverbally does not appear to be so easily coached, potentially making them a robust indicator of candidate character.”

Stewart found that the style of the smile that accompanied a humorous comment was an important factor in the amount of audience laughter, and the eyes were key. “Felt” smiles, also known as genuine or true smiles, involve both lips and eyes. In felt smiles, the lip corners pull up and back, and the muscles around the eyes pull up the cheeks and crinkle the corners of the eyes. Such smiles are difficult to fake, Stewart says, and are an “indicator of emotional state and behavioral intent.” In contrast, false smiles involve the lips but don’t typically engage the muscles around the eye opening, “giving the smile a flat or unconvincing quality.”

Stewart suggested that future research should consider whether audience laughter varies with the intensity of specific nonverbal displays, the use of different figurations of facial elements, or a particular combination of smile types. Timing is another issue: his research did not consider whether facial expressions were the product of the humorous comments or a reaction to audience laughter.

“Presidential laugh lines: Candidate display behavior and audience laughter in the 2008 primary debates” was published in the September 2010 issue of Politics and Life Sciences.

Stewart is an assistant professor of political science in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas. He is a certified coder in the Facial Action Coding System, and his current research focuses on nonverbal behavior by politicians during debates and the emotional response of citizens to different types of smiles by politicians.


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