The Corner

About Faces

This afternoon, I spoke to Chris Kowal, an assistant professor of consumer science at Purdue University. Among other things, Kowal studies facial expressions, and he has just finished running last night’s vice presidential debate through a computer for analysis. “It’s an odd experience,” he told me. “You watch without the sound and in slow motion, as many of the reactions are so fast.”

I asked him what he thought of the debate. “It was the bulldog versus the puppy,” he said. “Joe Biden is extremely emotionally expressive, he has a wide range of emotions. He showed anger, happiness, sadness, surprise.” Ryan is expressive, too; his smile is “very likeable.” There is no doubt which was the bulldog and which was the puppy. “If you can gain an emotional connection with people,” Kowal told me, “they interpret it as charisma and are more likely to follow you . . . both display a complete range of emotions.” 

I asked how much of Biden’s performance he thought was genuine and how much was theatrical. “I think he’s very sincere,” he replied. “He actually seems to feel how he looks.” He showed “strong disgust” and “pure frustration. . . . I think this explains why he laughed so much — more than does genuine amusement. His words and facial expressions match up closely. When he told the story about the car accident, he showed extreme sadness.” The effect of this for the viewer? “Catharsis,” which Kowal thinks was useful for Democrats after the “pent up frustration” of Obama’s performance against Romney. “Obama showed sadness and neutrality,” he continued. Biden, meanwhile, will have “triggered strong emotional responses” among the Democratic base. 

And what of Ryan? He’ll have done “the same” for Republicans, Kowal thought. “But I doubt either resonated with independents.” I asked why. Is it because independents don’t feel as emotional about politics as partisans do? “Yes, pretty much that.” Did anything stand out in Ryan’s performance? “At one point, there was a question about what each candidate would bring to the role.” Ryan’s opening word — ‘honesty’ — “provoked a strong emotional response” in him, said Kowal.

A U.S. News piece today looked into the potential effect of Biden’s performance. Analysts seemed to be divided as to how it was received:

Some say the vice president’s nuanced communication strategy came off well. “While displaying anger/threat in his responses, the vice president nonetheless mitigated some of this aggression through verbal politeness, several times referring to Ryan as a ‘friend,’” says Erik Bucy, a professor at Texas Tech University’s college of media and communication, calling Biden’s complex responses a form of “aggressive-belittlement.”

“The potential genius in this strategy…[is] if there’s a conflict between what’s being said and what’s shown (Ryan’s assertions and Biden’s reactions), the visuals tend to win out,” he says.

But Jeff Thompson, a nonverbal communication researcher at Griffith University, believes something entirely different happened. Nonverbally, Thompson thinks Biden lost the debate, even eclipsing Al Gore’s audible sighs and head shaking from the debate in 2000.

“With his frequent laughter, smiling and fidgeting…it was clear he was displeased with Ryan’s comments,” says Thompson. “However, his reaction displayed a lack of control and professionalism. At one point, he seemed to even be yelling at the moderator Martha Raddatz while he pointed his finger at her.”

Today’s reaction polls show a slight preference for the puppy.

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