Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Guest post: Camera Views of Candidates’ Debates Could Play Key Role in Winning Style

This week our blog hosts a guest post from Lester Loschky (Cognitive Psychologist) on the recent US presidential and VP debates and how subtle directorial decisions may impact our impressions of the candidates. (Tim J. Smith)

Camera Views of Candidates’ Debates Could Play Key Role in Winning Style
by Lester Loschky

I will make a claim that many people may find counter-intuitive: The camera views of the US Presidential candidates in their debates could prove important in determining who “wins” those debates.  But before you close your browser window on this seemingly crazy idea, read on, and see if you don’t find it more persuasive.  There is a lot of research, and a lot of punditry that backs it up.

Those following the current US Presidential election campaign know that the impact of the Presidential debates has assumed a greater importance than any in recent memory.  President Obama’s poor performance relative to Governor Mitt Romney in their first debate apparently led to his losing a commanding 5 point lead in the general election polls in the period of a week

In addition, most of the commentary on that debate has shown that it was particularly the “style” of each of the candidates that was particularly important.  The importance of style is consistent with what has been said about other important US Presidential debates of the past.  For example Richard Nixon’s sweating and five o’clock shadow compared to JFK’s cool demeanor in the 1960 debates, and Al Gore’s superior seeming sighs compared to W’s folksy manner, have both been credited with influencing the outcomes of their respective elections. 

I would like to point to one particular point of style that was very apparent in the first Obama/Romney debate—namely eye contact with the camera.  Howard Kurtz noted “stylistically, Romney came on strong, showing a confident command of facts and figures even as he tried to moderate or distance himself from some of his proposals. He also made direct eye contact with the camera while Obama often seemed to be looking down [emphasis added], never adjusting his intensity and acting like he was at a garden-variety news conference” Howard Kurtz, Oct 3, 2012 10:35 PM EDT).  Thus, Obama’s lack of eye contact with the camera during his debate may have been a factor is his losing of the debate.

Importantly, this issue also came up in the Vice Presidential debate between Vice President Biden and Congressman Ryan.  However, in that debate, it can be argued that it was due to the ABC Debate Director’s decision as to which views of each candidate to show to the TV audience.  Specifically, the camera views in the Biden versus Ryan debate Closing Statements favored Ryan.  Biden was shown looking at the wrong camera for the entire 1:19 of his final remarks but Ryan was show looking at the right one (see the Youtube embedded video clip below and a couple of screen captures from the clip). 

This is odd, because there is a red light on the camera you are supposed to look at, and Biden must know this very well.  So why was Biden looking at the wrong camera?  It seems implausible that Biden could not see the red light on the camera he was supposed to look at, or that he intentionally looked at the wrong camera, or he chose to address his comments to the chair of the debate.  Most importantly, the ABC Debate Director in the control room was the person who ultimately chose how Biden was presented to the national TV audience.  If it was argued to have been due to a lapse of attention by the Director, and the person below the Director who was in charge of pressing the button that selects the camera view to show the TV audience, then it was an extremely long lapse of attention, since the camera shot on Biden lasted for 79 seconds (i.e., 1:19), at the single most important (final) portion of the debate.  However, we can assume that the Director of the debate in the control room was a consummate professional, since s/he was chosen as Director for this very high stakes debate.  Thus, we can also assume that it was not a simple mistake due to a lapse of attention.  This means that it had to have been a conscious decision.  If so, it is a big problem.

Specifically, research has shown that failure to make eye contact reduces the likeability of a person (Mason, Tatkow et al. 2005), and makes a speaker less persuasive (Yokoyama & Daibo, 2012).  Thus, the Debate Director's choice of camera view for Biden's closing statement made him less likeable and persuasive (he wouldn't look you in the eyes), and made Ryan more likeable and persuasive (he looked you in the eyes).  Again, assuming this was not a simple mistake, for the reasons give above, put it into the realm of a “plausibly deniable” political “dirty trick” of the sort that Richard Nixon’s staff was famous for in the Watergate scandal.

Of course, one could argue that the camera view choice was a small thing, for only 1:19 of the Vice Presidential debate, which common wisdom says will not change the course of an election.  The counter argument to that is that the V.P. debate was argued to be critical in determining the momentum of the Presidential election campaign, and that the Closing Statement is the last thing that viewers see in the debate, and should therefore be most memorable.  This is based on the extremely well-known phenomenon of the “recency effect” which research has shown also affects long-term memory for things such as memory for US presidents (e.g., name all the US presidents you can remember in reverse chronological memory—most people’s memory is best for the most recent Presidents)(Roediger & Crowder, 1976). 

More importantly, what if the same "mistake" happens tonight in President Obama's or Governor Romney’s closing statement?  These simple directorial decisions may impact our perception of each candidate in subtle ways that cumulatively effect our overall confidence in them and their politics.

Lester Loschky
Cognitive Psychologist

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