Outta Control: Trump, Critics, and Circumcising Mosquitoes

Are we thinking? Reading body language (or not) in the presidential election.

Posted Sep 11, 2016

People call U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump the “Blue Collar Billionaire.” But I think he gets a pretty good run for his money from Jerry Jones, the owner of the world’s most valuable sports team, the NFL’s (and my) Dallas Cowboys. 

//www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Alvesgaspar (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mr. Jones recently referenced “circumcising mosquitoes” when discussing ways to address his team’s quarterback woes and the dangers of over-analyzing the situation. I have laughed about this just about every day since I heard that he said it in early September. This is the most vivid metaphor I’ve heard in quite a while, and it will probably stick with me for a long time.

Unfortunately, it’s probably a little too colorful for the stuffy academic journals, so I’m pretty sure I won’t use it in my professional writing. But I think it’s perfect for the cool folks at Psychology Today and it certainly makes sense to me in regard to a recent Trump controversy. 

OUT OF CONTROL 

This year’s U.S. presidential election is out of control. The candidates are both out of control, the talking heads are out of control, and the media certainly are out of control, just fanning the flames.

So I’m thinking we need some mosquito surgery in this presidential election. The most recent example is Trump’s comment at MSNBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum about President Obama not following the advice of the U.S. intelligence community. When asked whether he learned anything from secret intelligence briefings he's beginning to get as a presidential nominee, he said

"What I did learn is that our leadership, Barack Obama, did not follow what our experts … said to do…I could tell you—I have pretty good with the body language—I could tell they were not happy. Our leaders did not follow what they were recommending." 

Of course, Trump’s chief rival Hillary Clinton immediately criticized him for being inappropriate and undisciplined. No big surprise there. But the media also jumped into the fray saying things like, “The briefings are intelligence. They are not policy conclusions. It's remarkable that he [Trump] would say that.” And experts familiar with these intelligence briefings tend to agree that the briefers would not say whether they agree with presidential policy or not. 

TIME TO SCRUB UP

But we need to do some mosquito surgery here, because if you actually read Trump’s statement you’ll see that he didn’t say they overtly stated they disagreed with Obama’s policies. What he said is that the briefers’ nonverbal communication, in particular their body language, indicated to him that they disagreed.

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Source: David Seaton: www.flickr.com

And there’s voluminous research showing that people can effectively read another person’s body language—that body language often “trumps” verbal statements (sorry, I couldn’t resist). For instance, by some estimates less than 10% of communication consists of the words actually spoken. The remaining 90% comes through nonverbal communication like body language and tone of voice. And it can be very difficult for people to completely eliminate nonverbal cues when they’re speaking.

For instance, research suggests one can fairly accurately detect lying by imposing a cognitive load on someone (i.e., making someone think hard) then assessing the person’s response to questions in terms of time to respond (slower is associated with lying), answer consistency (less suggests lying), eye movement speed (slower suggests lying), and pupil dilation (larger suggests lying). The idea is that we have to think harder when we’re lying, which causes the above responses. See below for a short list of more research on the value of body language.

So is it possible the intelligence briefers conducted an appropriate and professional briefing and still communicated their disagreement (or agreement) with Obama’s policies to Trump? I think body language researchers would say it’s absolutely possible. 

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Can you read body language?

Find out by taking this Body Language Quiz and Micro-Expression Test.

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For more information:

App, McIntosh, Reed & Hertenstein. 2011. "Nonverbal Channel Use in Communication of Emotion: How May Depend on Why." Emotion 11(3): 603-617.

Grabe & Bucy. 2009. Image Bite Politics: News and the Visual Framing of Elections. Oxford University Press.  

Stewart & Ford Dowe. 2013. "Interpreting President Barack Obama's Facial Displays of Emotion: Revisiting the Dartmouth Group." Political Psychology 34(3): 369-385. 

Stewart, Waller & Schubert. 2009. "Presidential Speechmaking Style: Emotional Response to Micro-expressions of Facial Affect." Motivation and Emotion 33(2): 125-135.

Walczyk, Griffith, Yates, Visconte, Simoneaux, & Harris. 2012. “Lie Detection by Inducing Cognitive Load: Eye Movements and Other Cues to the False Answers of ‘Witnesses’ to Crimes.” Criminal Justice and Behavior 39(7): 887-909.

In addition to writing the "Caveman Politics" blog for Psychology Today, Gregg is the Executive Director of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences and Associate Professor and Chair of Political Science at Augusta University. You can find more information on Gregg at GreggRMurray.com or follow him on Twitter at @GreggRMurray.

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