Body language: blinking a lot explained. The first US Presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden took place last night and critics are already calling it “the worst one in history“. Seeing the candidates go head to head has prompted much speculation – including about their body language and what it might mean.

TOPSHOT – (COMBO) This combination of pictures created on September 29, 2020 shows US President Donald Trump (L) and Democratic Presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden squaring off during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29, 2020. (Photos by JIM WATSON and SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON,SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Last night’s presidential debate inevitably sparked much online speculation. Everything from the behaviour of the candidates to the quality of their responses and even how much they blinked was put under the magnifying glass of Twitter.

In presidential debates, where the stakes are so high, and where so much is inevitably stage managed, viewers look for any extra clue to judge the candidates by. The tiniest detail is scrutinised and the slightest gesture suddenly takes on elaborate meaning. 

What do body language and blinking a lot mean? How can you tell when someone is telling the truth?

Twitter reacts

Many were far from impressed with last night’s debate. Former BBC correspondent John Simpson was among them:

And many were already anticipating the inevitable…

While others were offering helpful suggestions:

Body language also featured heavily in the speculation – one of those perennial topics at this time of the quadrennial. This time around, blinking a lot has been one of the most burning topics.

And it’s far from unusual. In 2016?

And in 2012?

Body language analysis and the presidential debates

Researcher Roger Streckler notes the key is in how fast or slow someone blinks compared to their ‘baseline’ expression. It’s also worth taking into consideration that the higher the stakes, the less reliable an indicator this can be. Other indicators such as momentary ‘cracks’ in expression, fake smiles or aversion of gaze might be a better guide.

None of that perhaps changes the crucial detail of how blinking a lot, or other non-verbal cues are perceived. 

TOPSHOT – (COMBO) This combination of pictures created on September 29, 2020 shows Democratic Presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden during the first presidential debate opposite US President Donald Trump at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29, 2020. (Photos by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Research into a group of students’ responses to a series of political debates found that the existing values and preferences of the individual’s influenced the extent to which a politician was accepted as sincere and relatable, even with dubious body language. Gestures are, if anything, more likely to simply reinforce what we already believe.

 

Body language: blinking a lot explained

So, can we really tell whether someone is lying just from the way they blink? Like, if they’re blinking a lot, does it mean they’re lying a mile a minute?

TOPSHOT – (COMBO) This combination of pictures created on September 29, 2020 shows US President Donald Trump during the first presidential debate with Democratic Presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 29, 2020. (Photos by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

The reality, of course, is that body language analysis is not fool-proof. One of the biggest pitfalls of the armchair analyst is viewing a gesture in isolation.

As Traci Brown, body language expert, explains, to identify a lie, “you first have to have a baseline for how someone acts when they’re being honest”.  So if somebody is covering their nose while seemingly telling a fib, it only means something if they don’t tend to do this in general.

Brown points out we would need to understand how someone responds when they’re being honest. What do they do with their hands, their eyes when answering something like “Where are you from?” She suggests it’s what happens with the hands and eyes afterwards that may be more of a give-away.

The focus on blinking as a lie detector is also less reliable if you’re listening to someone who might not feel high stress levels when usually lying.

Nonetheless, given the general mistrust of politicians, it can be natural to scrutinise the non-scripted gestures behind the pantomime of the debates.

Overall, in the world of debates, this amounts to a familiar adage – what you already know or believe about a candidate isn’t likely to change in the blink of an eye.

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