Nonverbal Communication in Politics The 2012 presidential election finally reached its conclusion late Tuesday night on November 6th, as the incumbent Barack Obama won a second term in the White House over the challenger Mitt Romney. The election, with its reputation as the most expensive presidential race in history, attracted wide attentions not only from the United States but also from many other countries around the globe (Confessore & McGinty, 2012). The election was also noted with a numerous number of debates and discussions in both online and offline about the two candidates’ policies and pledges on every level.
However, while a lot of attention was paid to the candidates’ verbally expressed speeches and pledges, the candidates’ nonverbal communication drew a relatively insignificant amount of attention from both the media and voters. Despite the fact that people pay more attention to candidates’ verbal communication, nonverbal communication, such as physical appearance, facial expressions and eye contact, plays a decisive role in elections and politics in general. Nonverbal communication
To begin with, nonverbal communication is by its definition “the intentional or unintentional transmission of meaning through non-spoken physical and behavioral cues” (Toma, 2012, p. 19), and it has different means for transmitting information nonverbally, such as facial expressions, eye contact, gestures and body postures. Moreover, according to Rashotte (2002), nonverbal communication conveys additional information about the behavior being performed, and it can be performed with other behaviors to reinforce the meanings of those behaviors or contradict them.
For instance, nonverbal communication can inform others whether a person is performing a behavior earnestly with a smile or unwillingly with a grim face. In contrast, verbal communication is far from being a perfect method of communication. When a person is communicating verbally, there are many possible ways for the content to be misunderstood. It is prevalent that the content a speaker verbally expresses and the content the audience interprets are not congruent. In addition, Archer and Akert (1977) state that nonverbal communication not only buttresses, but often trumps verbal communication, nd transmits more meanings in conversation than verbal communication.
Bonoma and Felder (1977) also add that people have the tendency to perceive nonverbal communication to be more authentic and unaffected than verbal communication, and therefore people are relatively easily influenced by the nonverbal cues they observe. Consequently, it is only natural to expect political decision making to be similarly affected by the virtue of nonverbal communication, and indeed, a number of recent studies have shown this to be the case.
Not only that, Kopacz (2006) notes that the importance of nonverbal communication in political persuasion has in fact increased dramatically in the last fifty years for several reasons. Unlike 50 years ago, when candidates most often used the radio and newspapers as their channel of communication to voters, politicians these days utilize much more visualized media like televisions and the Internet to communicate with voters.
The arrival of televisions and the Internet has made it significantly easier and more effective for politicians to persuade and convince people to vote for them and at the same time “has given viewers substantial exposure to candidates’ appearance, gestures, posture, and other nonverbal cues” (Kopacz, 2006, p. 2). In brief, nonverbal communication, which is communication without the use of spoken language, has many functions in politics.
Nonverbal communication discloses additional information about the speaker’s behavior, and often conveys more meanings in conversation than verbal communication (Rashotte, 2002; Archer & Akert, 1977). Moreover, nonverbal communication is usually perceived as more authentic and influential (Bonoma & Felder, 1977). Furthermore, the advent of more visualized media has caused nonverbal communication to be ever more important (Kopacz, 2006). Physical Appearance The first form of nonverbal communication that plays a significant role in influencing the voting behavior is the physical appearance of candidates.
The analytical study by Olivola and Todorov (2010) states that today’s politics have become so extremely intricate and incomprehensible that it is almost impossible for voters to genuinely agree to every aspect of the candidates’ views. For instance, it is highly conceivable for voters to agree on international and security issues with one candidate and agree on economic issues with the other candidate at the same time. Hence, the number of the voters who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of political issues and unmotivated to study candidates’ policy as a criterion for making their choice has increased (Olivola & Todorov, 2010).
In addition, according to Olivola and Todorov (2010), the field of cognitive psychology indicates that people’s minds tend to simplify decision making process by relying on simple rules when they are confronted with too much information. As a result, instead of behaving as rational actors and voting reasonably as they are believed to do so, voters are hugely influenced by and unconsciously opt for irrelevant cues, which in this case, the candidates’ physical appearance.
Furthermore, Olivola and Todorov (2010) state that voters actually infer politicians’ personality traits and form impressions on politicians based on their physical appearance rather than their verbally claimed personality traits. Kopacz (2006) also emphasizes that in recent elections, candidates’ personal attributes and predispositions have become campaign issues that compete for voters’ attention against other verbally expressed promises and policies.
Since physical appearance has been linked to evaluation of politician’s personality traits, and overall media exposure is associated with increased importance of candidates’ character traits, rather than policy positions, as predictors of electoral choice, it is reasonable to expect that the physical appearance of political candidates conveyed through mass media has impact on the character judgments made by voters (Olivola & Todorov, 2010).
In order to ascertain their finding, Olivola and Todorov (2010) first prepared a number of pictures of politicians from past elections and made subjects infer the politicians’ personality traits from the pictures. After that, the subjects were asked to predict the outcomes from the past elections, and the authors later compared the subjects’ conjecture to the actual winners from the elections. The result turned out that most of the subjects’ inferences on the personality traits were generally marked to show similar patterns to each other, and among many personality traits, competence judgment predicted the winner with the highest accuracy.
The study also showed that baby-faced politicians were negatively correlated with competence judgment, whereas attractive and familiar-looking politicians were expected to be more competent and dependable (Olivola & Todorov, 2010). Hence, Olivola and Todorov (2010) concluded that competence judgment is highly associated with judgment of dependability, which appears to be the quality voters most desire in their leaders, and therefore voters are either consciously or unconsciously inclined to vote for the candidates with physical appearance that attribute more to their competence judgment.
Other similar study on young children by Antonakis and Dalgas (2009) also supports the idea that people are not rational decision makers in politics and people have the tendency to make their political choices based on the physical appearance of candidates. In this particular study, young children of ages between five and thirteen years-old participated in a game involving a simulated trip to an island. Thereafter, these young participants were asked to choose the captain of their boat from the pictures of pairs of politicians from past elections.
Surprisingly, the children’s choices of the captain turned out to be similar to the actual election outcomes (Antonakis & Dalgas, 2009). This result highlights the fact that people do not vote rationally or if they do, they vote as rationally as those children of ages between five and thirteen. Overall, in the complicated political decision making situations, many voters are not necessarily making their choices rationally, but are inclined to judge and vote for politicians based on irrelevant and simple cues, such as the politicians’ physical appearance.
Facial expressions Secondly, the candidates’ facial expressions in public have a substantial amount of influences on politics and the voting behaviors. Facial expressions are a vital part of communication and they convey, often involuntarily, the emotional state of the person to observers. In fact, facial expression is considered as “one of the most powerful, natural and immediate means for human beings to communicate their emotions and intentions” (Shan,Gong & McOwen, 2008, p. 803).
Moreover, Ekman (1993) states that facial expressions are so closely tied to emotions that six facial expressions that represent happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust and anger are universally accepted across cultures. In addition, due to their connection with emotions, facial expressions are intensely difficult to control and can thus deliver great information about subconscious processes (Ekman, 1993). Consequently, in politics, the candidates’ facial expressions can either reinforce or deteriorate their positions and credibility, and have considerable impacts on the people’s voting preferences.
For instance, if a candidate is introducing hopeful promises in a public speech, yet his or her facial expressions are facetious, voters will evidently question his solemnity and intention. Not only that, the more prominent and famous politicians are, the more vulnerable they are to analysis of their facial expressions. Well-known politicians often attract crowds and attentions wherever they visit, and almost every action and facial expression from them do not go unnoticed.
Overall, facial expressions are closely associated with emotions and subconscious intentions and have impacts on the political scene (Ekman, 1993). In fact, politicians’ facial expressions can negatively influence the voting preference if they are not congruent with the actual words politicians verbally express, or can strengthen the preference if they agree with politicians’ verbal communication. Eye contact Lastly, eye contact, another form of nonverbal communication, also plays a considerable role in political decision making situations.
Traditionally, human eyes have been known in many cultures as the gate way to one’s soul, and eye contact has often been described as an important sign of confidence in the Western culture. In fact, myriads of studies have been conducted to prove the significance of direct eye contact in improving speaker credibility. The study conducted by Beebe (1974) is one of the most original ones, in which the author carefully gathered a group of students from an introductory speech course at a college as subjects, and divided them into three groups.
After that, Beebe (1974) appointed an experienced speaker and made the speaker to consciously deliver the three different amounts of eye contact in a public speaking environment to the three different groups. For example, the speaker intentionally delivered no eye contact to the first group of the students, moderate amount of eye contact to the second group and the most active and engaging eye contact to the last group. Beebe (1974) then videotaped each presentation and showed the recording to a panel of ifferent speech experts to insure that the speaker had delivered the speech in the same manner in all three treatments, except to vary the amount of eye contact. The students were later asked of their opinions on the speaker’s credibility and persuasiveness, and the result illustrated that “an increase in the amount of direct eye contact generated by a speaker in a live public-speaking situation enhances the listener’s perception of the speaker’s credibility” (Beebe, 1974, p. 24).
Thus, whether or not politicians deliver the adequate amount of eye contact in a variety of public speaking environments, such as televised debates and speeches, evidently affects the voters’ perception of credibility and eventually the voters’ preference. Summary In a nutshell, despite of the fact that nonverbal communication is often neglected and draws a relatively insignificant amount of attentions from the media and voters, it is one of the most important ingredients of communication that serves many different functions and significant influences on politics.
In general, nonverbal communication transmits additional information about the communicator’s behaviors, and can enhance or contradict the meanings of the behaviors (Rashotte, 2002). Moreover, voters are inclined to perceive that nonverbal communication is more authentic and unaffected, and therefore voters are more easily influenced by nonverbal cues than politicians’ verbally expressed claims (Bonoma & Felder, 1977).
Plus, more visualized media like televisions and the Internet have increased the significance of nonverbal communication in politics dramatically in the last fifty years (Kopacz, 2006). In addition, many studies have shown that voters have the tendency to infer politicians’ personality traits based on the physical appearance of candidates, and they often make choices according to their appearance-based judgments (Olivola & Todorov, 2010).
Antonakis and Dalgas (2009) also supported the idea that people do not vote rationally, but are vulnerable to seemingly irrelevant nonverbal cues in making their choices in complicated situations. Furthermore, facial expressions often manifest the emotional states and subconscious intentions of candidates and can influence the voting preference (Shan, Gong & McOwen, 2008). Lastly, eye contact are often interpreted as a sign of confidence and dependability in most of the Western cultures and it augments the voters’ perception of politicians’ credibility (Beebe, 1974).