Examining Body Language at the GOP Debate

09/08/2011 08:44 am ET Updated Nov 08, 2011

If you want to learn what the Republican candidates in Wednesday's debate really think and feel, then you can't just listen to their words. You've got to see how they said them. Were you being lied to, deceived or in some way lead astray during last night's debates? Could simple facial expressions provide worthwhile clues?

My work suggests that the answer is a resounding "YES!" In fact, one study of nonverbal communication by Harvard professor Daniel J. Benjamin and Jesse M. Shapiro from the University of Chicago found that people could predict who would win an election by simply watching the candidates expressions during a debate, even when they couldn't make out the candidates words.

You have undoubtedly experienced something similar yourself by simply watching the body language of someone who is talking to you, and noticing incongruities between what they say and how they say it. You can see a lot of body movement when many people speak, but not all movements, gestures, and facial expressions are created equal; in fact, you can pick up enormous information when you learn to distinguish the somewhat hidden microexpressions someone unconsciously displays while they are talking to you.

How can microexpressions help you detect when someone is attempting to deceive you or even outright lie to you? In my work training lawyers, judges and security professionals in the art of lie detection, I emphasize that while it may be hard to find out what the truth is by observing microexpressions, you sure can tell when the truth is being hidden in some way.

Here's a quick guide to some types of expression that deserve your special attention, some of which we can observe from Wednesday's Republican presidential debate. I will provide even more tips and analysis in subsequent columns, but this one should help us get started.

Contempt, one of the seven universal emotions identified by psychologists, can be somewhat easily detected by the simple smirk or sneer. While a sneer may be more obvious, the simple smirk, defined by Merriam-Webster as "to smile in an affected or smug manner," can provide oft-overlooked clues as to the emotional state of the speaker. When I test lawyers and executives around the world, it's the one facial clue that people miss the most often. But it's actually easy to see. It's the only expression that typically shows up on only one side of the face. It's like a smile, but only half the face seems to get involved. Dick Cheney may only have been vice president, but he was smirker-in-chief, and W. was a close second.

Last night's Republican presidential debate offered several chances to glimpse the smirk in action. Thirty-two minutes into the debate, Rick Perry was asked to comment on a recent report that whites have far more wealth than African-Americans. If you were tuned in, you would have heard him react to a comment from Rick Santorum by saying he wanted to respond to the "last individual." Then you see the half smile on Perry's face just before he says that creating jobs is what helps the most, regardless of someone's race. Does his smirk reveal contempt for the "last individual?" Does it reveal contempt for "job creation?" Does it reveal contempt for racial distinctions? Hard to know, but we do know he reveals contempt.

You might not catch this kind of revealing expression at first. Most people miss contempt because they are too busy looking at someone's eyes or just listening to words. But you can also miss contempt because it goes on and off the face so quickly. The theory: the emotional part of the brain triggers the half-smile, but then the more rational part of the brain tries to clamp down.

What does Rick Perry's smirk mean? It means he felt contempt at the time, but we can't be sure why. Was he contemptuous of being asked such a pointed question? Or was he really bothered by the last speaker, Rick Santorum?

We can't be sure about the precise source of contempt in Perry's smirk, but we do know that contempt can be a dangerous emotion. Psychologist John Gottman's research has shown that he can predict which couples will separate with over ninety percent accuracy by simply observing their interactions in real time. His research shows there are four key indicators for future breakup: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Kind of sounds like politics in general, doesn't it? No wonder we can't find political compromise. Amongst these four traits, contempt is one of the more destructive and he finds contempt is often present in troubled relationships.

Ron Paul also showed his own contemptuous version of the half-smile fifty-four minutes into the debate when he criticized Governor Perry for an executive order to offer vaccines against HPV -- a disease that can cause cervical cancer. Did his smirk reveal contempt for Perry in general? For Perry's stance on HPV vaccination? Or... ??? Again, hard to know at this point, but we can be reasonably certain that contempt was present.

What could contempt mean for a politician? What's the equivalent to predicting divorce for couples? Contempt could be the precursor to the breakdown of discussions between two parties, as in the recent debate-ceiling debacle. George W. Bush's contemptuous smirk was omnipresent, so much so that his pre-election strategists kept apologizing for it by spinning his contempt as people mistaking his "friendly outgoing personality on TV" as being mistaken for a smirk and smugness -- at least that's how one "senior Republican official" was quoted in the Dec. 8, 1999 edition of the Boston Globe. W's smirky contempt was consistently on display during his presidency with such famous lines about being for us or against us.

Contempt wasn't the only nonverbal on display last night. There were also notable patterns of changes in blinking rate. That's often a clue about extra thinking; while we can't be certain what the extra thinking was about, or why they felt they needed that extra thinking, the changes in blinking rates showed something was up. While you may not think blinking can be so revelatory, it is part of the lie detection training given to security personnel in such highly critical roles as Homeland Security. You saw Rick Perry elevate his blinking rate when he spoke of Social Security and not cutting benefits for those retired or about to retire.

What did that extra thinking suggest? We can't be sure. Maybe he was thinking of those less fortunate than himself. Maybe he was thinking of getting older. Or maybe he was thinking how to sound like he was making a promise -- but phrasing it to give him wiggle-room later.

I'll have more to say about nonverbal communication and potential deception in future columns. You may not be able to spot every politician's lie or every hidden message, but you can get better at developing a fuller sense of what politicians really think and feel. And, if that Benjamin and Shapiro study is right, then you'll also win more office pools on who will win the next set of elections.