Psych in Sum : Debates and body language 101


Tonight’s debate is expected to have 100 million viewers—more than any other presidential debate in history. While you’re watching, don’t just listen to what’s said. Watch the body language and delivery style of each candidate and keep the following in mind:

Carli, LaFleur, and Loeber (1995) examined four delivery styles of male or female speakers to determine how persuasive and well-received these styles were by male and female participants.

 Dominant: loud voice, angry tone, points intrusively at other person, maintains almost constant eye contact with other person, stern facial expression

Submissive: soft, pleading voice with verbal hesitations and stumbles, slumped posture, nervous hand gestures¸ averted gaze

Social: voice of moderate volume, relaxed posture with body leaning toward listener, friendly facial expression, moderately high amount of eye contact

Task: rapid speech, upright posture, moderately high eye contact while speaking, few vocal hesitations or stumbles, calm hand gestures

Participants rated these speakers on their competence, level of power (How powerful? Influential? Persuasive?), likeability (how likeable? Friendly? Group-oriented? Trustworthy?), and the extent to which they seemed threatening (How threatening? Condescending? Intimidating?).

Key findings:

  • Dominant style was perceived to be more powerful and influential but NOT more competent and certainly not more likeable. In fact, speakers exhibiting a dominant style, regardless of their gender, were equally disliked by male and female audiences.
  • Male and female speakers using social style were perceived to be the most competent, sociable, friendly and likable.
  • Relatedly, competence was deemed to be equally important for male and female speakers of both audiences. However, likeability was more important for male audiences of female speakers. In other words, female speakers for male audiences must be competent and likeable, whereas male speakers for male audiences only need to be competent. Female audiences showed no difference for male and female speakers.


Does this change how you watch the debate tonight?

Carli, LaFleur, & Loeber. (1995). Nonverbal, behavior, gender, and influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 1030-1041.


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