During the final stages of the presidential campaign season, public attention invariably turns to the relatively unmediated access to the candidates as provided through the general election debates and nationally televised interviews. Here, the look and nonverbal style of the candidates can play a major role in support of followers and, ultimately, their votes. The Cambridge University Press journal Politics and the Life Sciences has a long history of recognizing the role of nonverbal cues and signals in politics by publishing empirical research exploring these indicators of politician capacity and intent.
In this special virtual election issue of Politics and the Life Sciences, we highlight articles providing insight into biological capacity cues and signals of communicative and behavioral intent by political figures. The findings from this wide-ranging collection pertain to not just the presidential contest, but any political activity where individuals make political decisions based upon information perceived in person (Barner-Barry, 1986) or through media coverage (Bucy & Grabe, 2008).
The candidates’ ability to effectively communicate the intent and strength of their leadership message to followers through nonverbal signals is highlighted in today’s media saturated world and its mediated face-to-face interactions. While the mass media certainly influences what we see through their choices of “image bites” presented during news programs (Bucy & Grabe, 2008), and viewer characteristics most definitely influence how candidate nonverbal behavior is received (Masters, 1994), how the candidates present themselves during debates, speeches, and interviews is under their control and thus provides useful and reasonably accurate representations of their communicative and behavioral intent. The facial displays punctuating humorous comments and drawing audience laughter during debates (Stewart, 2010), and the types of smiles displayed in response to audience laughter and applause (Stewart, Bucy, & Mehu, 2015), for example, provide reliable signals of communicative and behavioral intent, and possibly reflect leadership traits and style. Furthermore, the vocalic style of communicating verbal messages can influence how political figures are perceived and how influential they might be (Schubert, Peterson, Schubert, & Wasby, 1992).
Likewise, static cues like size, height, and attractiveness play a role in voter evaluation of candidates by providing visual confirmation of a political figure’s physical capacity to carry out threats (Murray, 2014), sustain their health (Schubert, Curran, & Strungaru, 2011), and represent in-group interests (Heschl, 1993). Taken together, these nonverbal cues and signals provide salient and reliable evidence for evaluating and selecting leaders, especially when compared with the often incomplete, if not misleading, information provided by professional campaign staff.
Barner-Barry, C. (1986). An introduction to nonparticipant observational research techniques. Politics and the Life Sciences, 5(1), 139-147.
Bucy, E. P., & Grabe, M. E. (2008). “Happy warriors” Revisited: Hedonic and agonic display repertoires of presidential candidates on the evening news. Politics and the Life Sciences, 27 (1), 78-98.
Heschl, A. (1993). Physiognomic similarity and political cooperation: An exploratory investigation. Politics and the Life Sciences, , 61-68.
Masters, R. D. (1994). Differences in responses of blacks and whites to american leaders. Politics and the Life Sciences, 13(2), 183-194.
Murray, G. R. (2014). Evolutionary preferences for physical formidability in leaders. Politics and the Life Sciences, 33(1), 33-53.
Schubert, J. N., Peterson, S. A., Schubert, G., & Wasby, S. (1992). Observing supreme court oral argument: A biosocial approach. Politics and the Life Sciences, 11 (1), 35-51.
Schubert, J. N., Curran, M. A., & Strungaru, C. (2011). Physical attractiveness, issue agreement, and assimilation effects in candidate appraisal. Politics and the Life Sciences, 30 (1), 33-49.
Stewart, P. A. (2010). Presidential laugh lines. Politics and the Life Sciences, 29(2), 55-72.
Stewart, P. A., Bucy, E. P., & Mehu, M. (2015). Strengthening bonds and connecting with followers: A biobehavioral inventory of political smiles. Politics and the Life Sciences, 34 (1), 73-92.