Face Value

The science of nonverbal communication

Dominance Displays in Presidential Debate

Gaze, asymmetrical smiles, and facial illustrators are potent dominance cues.

Something interesting happened on the way to November’s election at a stop known as the first debate. On one side stood the incumbent president, the holder of the highest position in the land, if not the whole world, a position of unquestioned power and prestige. On the other side stood the contender to the post, apparently the underdog, and probable loser. But the tables turned, empowered by several well-placed dominance gestures by the challenger-–moves that would make any commander take notice.

President Barack Obama had the office but Mitt Romney had the chutzpah. Romney came at President Obama with a volley of powerful nonverbal gestures. For example, Romney used his eyes in a manner that former American Secretary of State Dean Rusk would surely have appreciated. During the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962 when the Soviet ships backed off and headed home, Rusk condensed what happened into a few famous words, “We went eyeball-to-eyeball with the Soviets,” Rusk said, “and they blinked.” 

Social psychologists who study the “nonverbal” underbelly to human communication have identified a behavior called, “visual dominance.” It involves looking but the key thing is not amount of eye contact but the ratio of looking-while-speaking to looking-while-listening. Visual dominance is not staring or at least not staring in the manner of young boys or smitten lovers. Instead, the dominant person in a conversation looks when he or she is talking and mostly looks away when he or she is “listening.” In contrast, the more submissive person looks more while he is listening and averts his gaze when he is talking (if he is even given the chance to talk). The visual dominance pattern says in effect, “Listen up. I’m talking!” Mitt Romney had the floor; Barack Obama moved to the side.

Other nonverbal signs signaled Mitt Romney was taking no backtalk this night. He smiled a good deal during the debate. That wouldn’t normally suggest a dominance display until you look more closely and see that his smiles were not of the friendly or happy kind (although after the debate he was probably really smiling). The smiling barely made it out of his usually closed mouth. That’s the first clue. Second, Mitt Romney’s smile had a subtle lopsidedness to it, what we psychologists, who study these things, call smile asymmetry. Asymmetrical smiles are strategically self-assured. Third, Mitt’s smile was pretty much fixed in place whenever President Obama spoke. A less subtle version would have been shaking his head throughout but that would have been too obvious.

And then there was Romney’s forehead. What are foreheads for? They are the canvas on which one conveys attitude. Romney’s brows were a study in certainty–up, down, drawing together, emphasizing here and doubting there. He wasn’t waiting respectfully in the wings. 

And did I mention Romney’s interruptions?

Marianne LaFrance, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Yale University.

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