Political Bodies: Citizens Watch Body Language

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Words may be skillfully crafted for political debates, but body language may say far more about character and motivations. If we focus our attention on certain parts of a politician's body, we can pick up on the speaker's thoughts or feelings, not just the words that pop out in soundbites.

Kinesics is the study of body language, an essential part of how we communicate. Psychologist Paul Ekman pioneered the study of facial expressions. The lead character in the TV show Lie to Me is based on his work. With colleague Wallace V. Frieser, Ekman developed the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). Later, Maureen O'Sullivan, working with Ekman, chose the name "truth wizards" to designate people with the rare ability (50 out of 20,000 tested) to accurately detect deceptions 80 percent of the time or more. Even if you are not a truth wizard, you can enhance your ability to discern whether a speaker is being straight with you.

By training our attention on one physical feature at a time, we become aware of habitual movements that are often unnoticed when our gaze moves around a visual image. For example, during the 2004 presidential debates, vice presidential candidate John Edwards said all the right things about family values while his tongue flicked out between his lips (like a frog catching flies) about once every minute. This reptilian gesture occurred so rapidly that unless a viewer stared at his mouth, the movement would go unnoticed. Was his mouth was so dry that he needed to moisten his lips, or was he the serpent speaking with forked tongue?

Body language expert Carol Kinsey Goman, comparing candidate performance during the three recent presidential debates, declared Governor Mitt Romney the body language winner of the first debate. She considered President Obama's lack of energy, downcast face, and jaw-clenching to be more damaging that Romney's tight smile and shoulder bouncing. However, in the second and third debates, Obama's genuine smile, likeability, and self-confidence won over Romney's nervous swallowing, lip-licking, and stammering.

Television debates give voters an opportunity to observe how candidates handle stress and conflict. Rather than bouncing up and down, Romney repeatedly thrust his shoulders forward with each debating point. Just as a boxer who might start to throw a punch but then hold it back, Romney revealed an instinct to lunge that required repeated restraint, not exactly what some would want a world leader to emit. What if his internal leash snaps?

Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan provided an extreme contrast in body language. Ryan's tense, repetitious movements seemed robotic, partly because each body part moved in isolation. For instance, he does "The Turkey," jerking his head back and forth while the rest of his body, except the isolated pecking of his forearm and hand, remains frozen. Does this lack of integration or flow in Ryan's body reflect the state of his mind? He is also prone to extended eye brow elevation, not really an "eyebrow flash," in that it is too prolonged. His eyebrows first rise and his eyes stare intently as though making a point, but the longer they hang up near his hairline, the more his eyes soften and morph into a child-like pleading expression. As for smiling, Ryan can muster a tense smile, but no gum flashing. And what about that little "Heh, heh" laugh of his? Ryan could learn from a laughing coach, perhaps Vice President Joe Biden, who put on a tectonic display of body language.

Virtuoso Biden conducted all parts of his body in a symphony of whole body gestures that came across as spontaneous and genuine. Rather than Romney-esque shoulder thrusts, Biden's entire torso swept forward or backward in concert with his head and arms. His micro- and macro-expressions were in tune with his statements. In fact, Biden's face was so animated that while Ryan was speaking, he kept up a lively conversation with the audience by appearing incredulous, bemused, puzzled, or critical, accompanied by a full chorus of chuckles and chortles. What a repertoire! The Body Language Police will certainly give him The Best Gesture of the Debate award for his plea to the heavens. Looking up with raised arms, Biden was the picture of a prophet seeking guidance after toiling long and hard to enlighten a Philistine.

The interpretation of body language is a complex and inexact science. As Ekard cautioned, it can tell you something about what a person is feeling, but not what they are thinking. We can observe signs of anxiety, tension, anger, aggression, seduction, openness or defensiveness, but we can only infer the individual's intention. In the third debate, Romney's stutter came across as frustrated confusion. In contrast, because Obama is such a fluid, eloquent speaker, his stuttering suggests that he is collecting the best words to precisely express a thought. If anything, it gives him an air of humility, accessibility. Ryan rarely stutters. Instead, he rushes ahead with a barrage of words. Biden, the senior warrior, gets a pass on stuttering. People over the age of 60 (and many who are younger) know that age-related word-finding problems are exacerbated by stress and fatigue. We also know that the slowed retrieval of words does not diminish the wisdom that comes with age and experience. After all, even the great prophet, Moses, stuttered [1, 2]. In the end, we must admit that none of the current candidates can compare with Jimmy Stewart, the most endearing stutterer of this millennium.

When we listen to political speakers and to the pundits parsing their words, and as we try to decide who to trust, it may be worth focusing a few moments on body language. Let the experts tell us about their fact checking; we can do our own body checks.


1. Yes, the Bible indicates that Moses had a speech impairment, which caused him to fear the mission that God gave him. These descriptions have been interpreted to mean that Moses stuttered, although there are those who continue to argue the point. In the book of Exodus (4:10), just after Moses has been called by God and told to go to the pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt, he appeals to the Lord:

Exodus 6:12

But Moses said to the Lord, "If the Israelites will not listent to me, why would Pharaoh listen to me, since I speak with faltering lips?"

Exodus 4:10

Moses said to the Lord, "O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you spoke to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue."

Ex. 4:13

"Oh Lord, please send someone else to do it."

Ex. 4:14

Then the Lord's anger burned against Moses and He said, "What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well... You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and if you were God to him...."

2. A Talmudic story explains that when Moses was still an infant, the Pharaoh was advised to kill him, it was predicted that Moses would rise up against him. The Pharaoh Moses to the test by placing before him two bowls, one filled with gold, the other, with hot coals. If the baby Moses chose gold, he would be killed. As Moses reached for the gold, an angel struck his hand so that he grabbed a hot coal and put it in his mouth. According to the Talmud, the hot coal caused his stutter.

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