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Nonverbal Communication in Politics

Essay by   •  March 17, 2013  •  Case Study  •  2,127 Words (9 Pages)  •  2,095 Views

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Nonverbal Communication in Politics

The 2012 presidential election finally reached its conclusion late Tuesday night on November 6th, as the incumbent Barack Obama won a second term in the White House over the challenger Mitt Romney. The election, with its reputation as the most expensive presidential race in history, attracted wide attentions not only from the United States but also from many other countries around the globe (Confessore & McGinty, 2012). The election was also noted with a numerous number of debates and discussions in both online and offline about the two candidates' policies and pledges on every level. However, while a lot of attention was paid to the candidates' verbally expressed speeches and pledges, the candidates' nonverbal communication drew a relatively insignificant amount of attention from both the media and voters. Despite the fact that people pay more attention to candidates' verbal communication, nonverbal communication, such as physical appearance, facial expressions and eye contact, plays a decisive role in elections and politics in general.

Nonverbal communication

To begin with, nonverbal communication is by its definition "the intentional or unintentional transmission of meaning through non-spoken physical and behavioral cues" (Toma, 2012, p. 19), and it has different means for transmitting information nonverbally, such as facial expressions, eye contact, gestures and body postures. Moreover, according to Rashotte (2002), nonverbal communication conveys additional information about the behavior being performed, and it can be performed with other behaviors to reinforce the meanings of those behaviors or contradict them. For instance, nonverbal communication can inform others whether a person is performing a behavior earnestly with a smile or unwillingly with a grim face. In contrast, verbal communication is far from being a perfect method of communication. When a person is communicating verbally, there are many possible ways for the content to be misunderstood. It is prevalent that the content a speaker verbally expresses and the content the audience interprets are not congruent. In addition, Archer and Akert (1977) state that nonverbal communication not only buttresses, but often trumps verbal communication, and transmits more meanings in conversation than verbal communication. Bonoma and Felder (1977) also add that people have the tendency to perceive nonverbal communication to be more authentic and unaffected than verbal communication, and therefore people are relatively easily influenced by the nonverbal cues they observe. Consequently, it is only natural to expect political decision making to be similarly affected by the virtue of nonverbal communication, and indeed, a number of recent studies have shown this to be the case.

Not only that, Kopacz (2006) notes that the importance of nonverbal communication in political persuasion has in fact increased dramatically in the last fifty years for several reasons. Unlike 50 years ago, when candidates most often used the radio and newspapers as their channel of communication to voters, politicians these days utilize much more visualized media like televisions and the Internet to communicate with voters. The arrival of televisions and the Internet has made it significantly easier and more effective for politicians to persuade and convince people to vote for them and at the same time "has given viewers substantial exposure to candidates' appearance, gestures, posture, and other nonverbal cues" (Kopacz, 2006, p. 2). In brief, nonverbal communication, which is communication without the use of spoken language, has many functions in politics. Nonverbal communication discloses additional information about the speaker's behavior, and often conveys more meanings in conversation than verbal communication (Rashotte, 2002; Archer & Akert, 1977). Moreover, nonverbal communication is usually perceived as more authentic and influential (Bonoma & Felder, 1977). Furthermore, the advent of more visualized media has caused nonverbal communication to be ever more important (Kopacz, 2006).

Physical Appearance

The first form of nonverbal communication that plays a significant role in influencing the voting behavior is the physical appearance of candidates. The analytical study by Olivola and Todorov (2010) states that today's politics have become so extremely intricate and incomprehensible that it is almost impossible for voters to genuinely agree to every aspect of the candidates' views. For instance, it is highly conceivable for voters to agree on international and security issues with one candidate and agree on economic issues with the other candidate at the same time. Hence, the number of the voters who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of political issues and unmotivated to study candidates' policy as a criterion for making their choice has increased (Olivola & Todorov, 2010). In addition, according to Olivola and Todorov (2010), the field of cognitive psychology indicates that people's minds tend to simplify decision making process by relying on simple rules when they are confronted with too much information. As a result, instead of behaving as rational actors and voting reasonably as they are believed to do so, voters are hugely influenced by and unconsciously opt for irrelevant cues, which in this case, the candidates' physical appearance.

Furthermore, Olivola and Todorov (2010) state that voters actually infer politicians' personality traits and form impressions on politicians based on their physical appearance rather than their verbally claimed personality traits. Kopacz (2006) also emphasizes that in recent elections, candidates' personal attributes and predispositions have become campaign issues that compete for voters' attention against other verbally expressed promises and policies. Since physical appearance has been linked to evaluation of politician's personality traits, and overall media exposure is associated with increased importance of candidates' character traits, rather than policy positions, as predictors of electoral choice, it is reasonable to expect that the physical appearance of political candidates conveyed through mass media has impact on the character judgments made by voters (Olivola & Todorov, 2010). In order to ascertain their finding, Olivola and Todorov (2010) first prepared a number of pictures of politicians from past elections and made subjects infer the politicians' personality traits from the pictures. After that, the subjects were asked to predict the outcomes from the past elections, and the authors later compared the subjects' conjecture to the

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