Enjoy the following analysis of the Republican debate on October 11, 2011 from Dartmouth College. For this debate, expert nonverbal communication specialists Dawn Sweet, PhD and Maggie Pazian also offer their comments. 

We each offer our comments from our unique perspectives to provide a fun yet also in-depth review based on previous research of important nonverbal communication elements that were present during the debate.

Gingrich Pointing

Newt Gingrich Pointing (#1)

Jeff Thompson: Arguably the most visible nonverbal gesture tonight was Newt Gingrich and the use of his index finger in the form of pointing.  In previous debates I have called his actions reminiscent of a preacher and cowboy, and for this debate, he used his finger pointing to emphasize many of his points.  When clustered with his words and others actions, such as deciding, and being permitted, to interrupt host Charlie Rose, it shows me his confidence and an aggressive manner.  This picture below demonstrates how often he used this gesture and also in a variety of ways.

Dawn M. Sweet: When we see someone pointing as Mr. Gingrich is doing in Images 1 and 2, we typically refer to this behavior as a deictic gesture. A deictic gesture is an Illustrator, a speech-dependent gesture that accompanies talk and further elaborates the speaker's meaning (see Kendon, 1989). Its purpose is to point or reference a person or object in the immediate environment.

What makes Gingrich's pointing gestures stand out is their intensity and the short, choppy movement. Typically short, choppy movements such as the ones he displayed suggest irritation or agitation or aggression. One way to look at these gestures is through the lens of embodied cognition. Embodied cognition (see Kinsbourne, 2006) posits that one's cognitive process and physical movement are connected. In essence, an agitated internal state produces agitated external behavior.

Gingrich Cluster of Pointing Gestures

Cluster of Gingrich's Pointing Gestures (#2)


Huntsman (#3)

Maggie Pazian: Did you get a sense that Huntsman was always worried?

Well, that may be because throughout tonight's debate Jon Huntsman consistently displayed tensed and raised eyebrows, a key component in the facial expression of fear, as part of his communication pattern. While this expression is probably unbeknownst to Huntsman it may have an effect on his ability to communicate confidence and assurance. Fear is a distressing sensation and a reaction to a perceived threat of harm.

Satorum Smiling

Santorum Smiling? (#4)

Maggie Pazian: In an exchange with Romney, Rick Santorum in the second half of the debate flashes what appears to be a suppressed smile. While the mouth (pulled by the zygomaticus major) and the eyes (contracted by the orbicularis oculi) are both engaged giving evidence to a genuine as opposed to a social smile, he is also interestingly trying to control the intensity of his smile. His lips are pressed tightly and at the same time he is depressing his lip corners minimizing the visibility and strength of his smile.

Michelle Bachmann

Bachmann's alternative to pointing (#5)

Jeff Thompson: Although Speaker Gingrich frequently relied on finger pointing to stress his points, not everyone used this.  If there was an opposite of Newt Gingrich tonight, it had to be Michelle Bachmann.  She offered various nonverbal displays that shows a less aggressive and confrontational approach including tilting her head often, and opting for the alternate finger-pointing gesture.

GOP candidates not pointing

Alternatives to pointing (#6)

Jeff Thompson: The collection of pictures above of various candidates shows each using the alternative to finger pointing to stress a point while not being as confrontational as finger-pointing.  Note, some did use the index finger pointing gesture, but not nearly as frequent as Gingrich.

Dawn M. Sweet: In Images 5, and 6 Bachman and the other candidates display a less aggressive pointing gesture, to emphasize her points, perhaps indicating that they are perhaps better able to control their cognitive processes during these moments, making them appear less aggressive and more composed than Newt's Angry Finger.

GOP Kitchen Table

Debate Layout- "Kitchen Table"? (#7)

Jeff Thompson: The picture above shows each of the candidates in neutral sitting positions while also showing the layout of the debate.  Instead of a typical podium display, the option purposely chosen for tonight was, as Charlie Rose explained, a "kitchen table" set-up to contribute a dialogue setting. 

Dawn M. Sweet: This is of interest because it shows the candidates seated around an oblong or round table instead of a rectangular table or the more traditional podium. The table shape is of interest because it suggests cooperation and collaboration rather than dominance or leadership. Howells and Becker (1962) and Ward (1968) explain how table shape and seating arrangement dictate the flow of communication and leadership emergence. The candidates were arranged in such a way as to promote collaboration and cooperation, an attempt, perhaps, to minimize a leader from the group emerging.
Perhaps a deliberate attempt on behalf of the debate organizers to foster an atmosphere of civility and cooperation.
Of interest also, is that the moderators sat opposite the candidates and through this spatial organization identified themselves as the leaders of this assembled group.


Howells, L.T., & Becker, S.W. (1962). Seating arrangements and leadership emergence. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 64, 148-150.

Kendon, A. (1989). Gesture. International Encyclopedia of communications (Vol 2, pp. 217-222). NewYork: Oxford University Press

Kinsbourne, M. (2006). Gestures as embodied cognition. Gesture, 6, 205 - 214.

Ward, C. (1968). Seating arrangements and leadership emergence in small discussion groups. Journal of Social Psychology, 74, 83-90. 


Dawn Sweet

Dr. Sweet is a Visiting Professor at Iowa State University and is interested in nonverbal communication and research methods. Current projects include creating behavioral measures (e.g., body language and facial affect) for depression screening and diagnosis. Dr. Sweet is also investigating the behavioral patterns of individuals who have a predisposition to go into unfamiliar and high-risk environments and de-escalate conflict to effect positive outcomes. Dr. Sweet has worked on research projects funded by DARPA, Department of Homeland Security, the National Science Foundation, and the Naval Research Laboratory.

Email: sweet[at]iastate.edu
Twitter: @nonverbal_isu
Website: http://commstudies.las.iastate.edu/node/15

Maggie Pazian

Maggie Pazian is the owner of VisualEmotion LLC, a facial expression coding (FACS) and nonverbal communication consulting firm. Maggie is also an internationally accredited trainer in the science of nonverbal communication, analytic interviewing, emotion perception and deception detection. She has over ten years of experience in both field and academia specializing in the areas of micro-expressions, body language and Facial Action Coding System.

Email: maggie.pazian[at]facscodinggroup.com
Twitter: @VisualEmotionNJ
Website: www.visualemotionllc.com

You are reading

Beyond Words

The 5 Core Skills Of Hostage Negotiators

We are all involved in crisis situations, learn the skills to get out of them

"Recipes" for Success from Negotiation Expert "Chefs"

Learn what it takes to be a master "chef"—I mean negotiator from 15 experts!

Secret Skill of Crisis & Hostage Negotiators: Slow Down!

If slowing things down works for crisis hostage negotiators, it can help you too