News Stories

A Politician's Smile

Is it really a smile? - Now that so many people communicate via the internet, facial expressions aren't scrutinized the way they used to be. But one group of people frequently appear on TV (where we can see their faces) are people who are running for office. When an election is coming up, how can we know what they're REALLY thinking--do we need to be psychic? (NOTE: Subscribers can still listen to this show). It's good to know that scientists are studying this, and they've discovered that a smile isn't always a smile, especially when it's on the face of a politician.

Many behavioral ecologists, psychologists and political scientists have learned that facial expressions reveal more than meets the eye, and political scientist Patrick Stewart is certified in reading facial muscle movements, a skill he uses to analyze the statements of politicians because, he says, "Leaders are those individuals that dominate our attention." Stewart does not focus on lie detection but rather on smiles and humor in political leaders. He examines humor in politicians' speeches and the effect it has on their audiences. Is it charm or tension? Do their smiles signal nervousness?

Stewart says, "I am really interested in micro displays. I look at the nearly subliminal expressions and try to interpret what feelings are behind them. I am getting at the basic elements of human communication. As humans we respond to things that occur in even 1/33rd of a second and we are always unconsciously performing for others."

In a previous study he examined George Bush's speeches, and through surveys he found that many people were not completely convinced of what he was saying because of certain facial expressions. He says, "When George Bush talked about sending troops to Iraq, we saw a type of smile where his eyes are opened wide and his teeth are clenched [in a] a frightened smile. The interpretation is that he was anxious about going to war." As well he should have been.

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