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Candidates' eyes key to audience laughter in campaign trails

August 14, 2011 - Washington

What presidential candidates do with their eyes when they make humorous comments during televised primary debates is key to the strength of audience laughter, according to a University of Arkansas political scientist.

In a study on the use of humor by candidates, Patrick A. Stewart monitored 10 primary debates leading up to the 2008 presidential election. He focused on nonverbal cues related to humorous comments, a little-researched area.

"Laughing matters on the campaign trail, not only for bringing supporters together but also for defining leaders," Stewart wrote.

Stewart found that the style of the smile that accompanied a humorous comment was an important factor in the amount of audience laughter, and the eyes were key.

"Felt" smiles, also known as genuine or true smiles, involve both lips and eyes. In felt smiles, the lip corners pull up and back, and the muscles around the eyes pull up the cheeks and crinkle the corners of the eyes.

Such smiles are difficult to fake, Stewart says, and are an "indicator of emotional state and behavioral intent."

In contrast, false smiles involve the lips but don't typically engage the muscles around the eye opening, "giving the smile a flat or unconvincing quality," he added.

The study has been published in the September 2010 issue of Politics and Life Sciences.


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