Barack Obama's bowed head, averted eyes and blue tie lost him Wednesday night’s debate. In contrast, Mitt Romney stood erect, challenged with his gaze and dominated in a primitive way with his red tie. All three of these things increase testosterone, increase dopamine and increase aggression, motivation and mental sharpness. These signal one thing — dominance.
Barack Obama squandered his pre-debate advantages, namely poll successes, Mitt Romney’s blunders and a presidential home field advantage, which should have given him a confidence, aggression and mental agility that were missing in the debate.
The poll success would have triggered “The Winner Effect” – where the chances of winning a fight against a strong opponent are boosted by a previous victory. US boxing promoters have known this for a long time which is why they arrange pre-championship matches against ‘tomato cans’ – weak opponents. After Mike Tyson came out of prison, for instance, promoter Don King arranged for him to fight two such ‘tomato cans’ – Peter McNeely and Buster Mathis Jr. He went on to take the world championship from Frank Bruno the following year.
Obama had a series of mini-victories in the polls over the last month and the president’s successes should have given him an edge in the debate. Winning boosts the brain’s chemical messenger dopamine, reducing anxiety and emboldening. But these advantages were lost with Obama’s demeanor on the night, which had opposite effects on his brain, resulting in him looking anxious and lacking an aggressive boldness in the debate. Anxiety triggers the stress hormone cortisol, which can impede mental sharpness.
Dopamine should also have boosted this cognitive agility, allowing him to think on his feet, but the opposite happened and he was hesitant in his speech contrasted with Mitt Romney’s fluency.
Three things stood out about Obama's appearance — bowed head, averted eyes and blue tie. In contrast, Mitt Romney stood tall, dominated with his gaze and was the alpha male with the red tie. All three of these things increase testosterone, increase dopamine and increase aggression, motivation and mental sharpness. They also signal something very primitive — dominance.
While every word and gesture of the candidates will have been heavily coached and rehearsed, no amount of coaching can anticipate the cut and thrust of the debate because the sheer cognitive demands of keeping in mind what the candidates want to say, listening what the other is saying and keeping check on all movements, postures and expressions are potentially overwhelming.
At this limit of the brain’s processing powers, the slightest changes in chemical and hormonal messengers like testosterone, cortisol and dopamine can either enhance or diminish the candidate’s performance and so could be crucial in determining whether that fatal slip of the tongue or expression is nipped in the bud or leaks out to potentially fatal consequences.
Whoever coached Obama in his demeanor needs to ask some serious questions. Perhaps he was told to look down while Romney was speaking so as to be presidentially aloof. Instead, he looked like a small boy being berated by a big teacher. Constricted body posture signaled by the bowed head reduces testosterone, decreases aggression and depletes dopamine which reduces mental sharpness.
The averted eyes also signalled submission to the dominant alpha male Romney.
And why on earth he was allowed to wear a blue tie is a mystery. Did his handlers not know that Olympic boxers and wrestlers who are allocated a blue shirt are significantly more likely to lose a contest than those given the red shirt? Soccer teams wearing away strips also win more often if the strip is red. The colour red has a primitive biological association with dominance which affects us strongly and unconsciously.
The blue tie, in short, was the final nail in Obama's debate coffin.
Any remnants of a winner effect that Obama had going into the debate were shredded by what we must assume was the advice of his handlers. And if Obama ignored advice to behave differently? That is maybe more worrying. Or perhaps they didn't rehearse what he would do while Romney was speaking? Now if so, then his campaign really is doomed.