Study: In Debates, Words Do Have More Impact Than Body Language

Despite discussion playing up demeanor, we look past it.


Mike Segar

PROBLEM: The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf argued last week that "television is an atrocious format for presidential debates." There's an argument to made, of course, for television as the great democratizer, able to reach far more people than the text-based debates Friedersdorf proposes would. Plus, the little moments make great GIFs. But how much does what we see on screen -- the candidates' body language -- really influence our opinions?

METHODOLOGY: A 2005 German presidential debate between Gerhard Schroeder and Angela Merkel was meticulously parsed for the messages sent by each candidate. Specifically, they coded cues as verbal (issues, tone, emotional appeals), vocal (pitch, intensity, pace), or visual (specifically gaze, gestures, smiles).

The researchers then had 72 volunteers watch footage from the debate while monitoring their moment-by-moment reactions via a handheld dial -- a sort of real-time meter that was able to measure their subtle changes in attitude toward either candidate. They compared this data from the participants with what was happening on screen to determine which cues had the greatest influence on observers.

RESULTS: The verbal components of each candidate's technique had far greater influence on the viewers' immediate reactions than their body language.

The researchers also found that the candidates garnered the most favor when they spoke about party-centric issues or took on their appropriate role (the incumbent touting his successes, the challenger attacking the current administration).

Vocal communication was not studied as extensively as the other two types of cues, but where it was analyzed, it was shown to have only a slightly greater effect than body language. Merkel, for example, was viewed more positively when she spoke with a higher frequency.

CONCLUSION: Candidates' body language and ability to ham it up for the camera has little influence on potential voters, especially when compared to the impact of their actual statements and arguments.

IMPLICATIONS: "Barack Obama and Mitt Romney should take their cues on improving their verbal communication during the next televised debate," the authors suggest. They do, however, acknowledge that cultural differences concerning the importance of visual cues prevent them from confidently extrapolating their data to other countries' elections. And while this study was able to precisely track responses to things that the candidates did and said, it wasn't able to measure things like overall attractiveness that didn't change during the debate. All said, while it's okay to enjoy making light fun of the candidates' gestures and facial expressions, we shouldn't confuse visual entertainment with the aspects of the debates that are actually important.

The full study, "Is There a Visual Dominance in Political Communication? How Verbal, Visual, and Vocal Communication Shape Viewers' Impressions of Political Candidates" is published in the Journal of Communication.