Is it best to watch debates with the sound off?

As should be obvious, I continue to ruminate on Scott Adams’ argument that our judgement of politicians is based less on reason and rumination and more on emotional gut reactions. Adams argues that what matters is not what a person says but how “well” they say it. And Adams argues that Donald Trump is a master of this kind of persuasion.

Now, I admit this can be a tough argument to buy. I often find Trump’s words to be totally devoid on any substance and meaning. But I’m starting to observe how the content of a person’s message takes second chair to how they express it.

Recently I was watching some video of English right winger, Milo Yiannopoulos*, arguing with a feminist woman about equal pay in the workplace. Milo made at least one statement that was, I’m pretty sure, completely false. He was lying, as Trump is prone to do.

*For some reason, after I watched a bunch of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones videos, youtube started throwing Milo videos at me and I finally broke down and watched a few.

But, Milo is an entertaining and effectively public speaker. He has verve, you might say. And he projects utter confidence in what he is saying. (It reminds me of the old Seinfeld line: “It’s not a lie, Jerry, if you believe it.”) Meanwhile, the woman spoke with this kind of flat, passive tone and generally seemed on the verge of falling alseep. Her words may have been true, but that’s not really what stuck in my head. After I watched the video, what I remembered was how they spoke (e.g. with confidence and flair, or not) as opposed to what they said. If I had to rank them, I would say Milo “won” the argument although I’m not convinced of his point.

You can watch the video here. Ignoring what is actually being said, I think you’ll find this Milo guy comes across as more engaging, albeit in a very smarmy kind of way. I’m guessing he trained himself in this style of presentation.

It then struck me that there’s a simple way to see who is the more compelling speaker in a debate: turn the volume off. Just watch how the speakers present themselves. Who projects the most confidence and charisma? I would argue that, if you turned off the volume during the Republican primaries, you would see Trump clearly defeat his opponents, fellows like Bush, Rubio and Kasich. I have a sense Cruz might have a fighting chance and he was the strongest of Trump’s opponents.

If you like, watch the Milo video again with the sound off. The contrast between the two debaters is profound. It’s also interesting to watch the anchor at around the 4:40 mark. Note how she seems to find Milo amusing but also isn’t buying his schtick.

So, what I’m saying is that winning candidates use how they look and other cues to project a confident attitude and that counts more than their actual arguments. I vaguely recalled a recent psychological study that seemed to provide details for this argument. This New Yorker article provides info.

When people are asked about their ideal leader, one of the single most important characteristics that they say they look for is competence—how qualified and capable a candidate is. Todorov wondered whether that judgment was made on the basis of intuitive responses to basic facial features rather than on any deep, rational calculus.
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In other words, when we think that we are making rational political judgments, we could be, in fact, judging someone at least partly based on a fleeting impression of his or her face.
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Starting that fall, and through the following spring, Todorov showed pairs of portraits to roughly a thousand people, and asked them to rate the competence of each person. Unbeknownst to the test subjects, they were looking at candidates for the House and Senate in 2000, 2002, and 2004. In study after study, participants’ responses to the question of whether someone looked competent predicted actual election outcomes at a rate much higher than chance—from sixty-six to seventy-three per cent of the time. Even looking at the faces for as little as one second, Todorov found, yielded the exact same result: a snap judgment that generally identified the winners and losers. Todorov concluded that when we make what we think of as well-reasoned voting decisions, we are actually driven in part by our initial, instinctive reactions to candidates.

Obviously, many things affect voting decisions, from political platforms to sexting scandals. But if we control for the underlying factors, the research suggests that a thin-slice judgment retains its predictive validity, and it emerges as the single strongest predictor of victory beyond external factors such as broad economic data, like the unemployment rate; personal data, like age or gender; or any other single political measure, like whether someone is an incumbent or how much has been spent on the campaign.

So, this “voting by looks” method isn’t perfect, it doesn’t always predict the outcome. But it’s clearly a major factor.

The obvious question here is who projects more confidence: Clinton or Trump? I have to confess I really haven’t watched any of their speeches so I have a hard time deciding. There’s something about Trump I find so smarmy, but maybe others would interpret that as confidence. I’ll have to wait to watch the debates with the sound off.

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