Monday, October 29, 2012

Reading the American Election

I haz had ice-cream
The blog Neuroself, written by Peter Freed, who is, I think, a psychiatrist as well as a psychotherapist, is always interesting for anyone who is fascinated by the human mind. He has live-blogged the US Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates, and very interesting it’s been. He has been looking at the body language to try to learn about the state of mind of the candidates and, as or more importantly still, to try to predict how the audience will react to the paralinguistic communication. Most of what was said wasn’t especially interesting or memorable in itself, but the behaviour of the candidates, the impression their bodies left, will be remembered and may influence voting. (I didn’t watch any of the debates, I’m quoting my sources.)

I am not American, do not live there, do not expect whoever wins to invade Britain or Spain, or to solve the world’s economic problems- the rest of us will do that, eventually- so it is for me only of sporting interest who wins and who loses. Neither of them impresses me. They both look like politicians to me. Different types of politician, very different, but politicians nonetheless.

I don’t know Peter Freed’s politics, if he has any. He appears to be doing a clinical analysis with no partisan intent. In italics are his comments, all from the final debate between Obama and Romney on the 22nd inst.

It’s common wisdom in psychotherapy and policing alike that the willingness of someone to talk depends on the autonomic nervous system status of the questioner.

I wish he had clarified in what sense the correlation goes, and how it works. Also, why it was relevant here.

3. Mouth moistness: blood (and plasma) moves to muscles during high sympathetic tone. It moves to the internal organs and mucus membranes in parasympathetic tone. Mouth dryness is therefore a sign of sympathetic tone – whoever’s mouth is dryer is losing.

I could have done with more explanation of that as well, but there is enough to know what is happening when one or other changes tone in that way. What he doesn’t quite say, but I assume to be true, is that in contests like this, each combatant is aware of how the other is feeling. They both know who’s winning and who’s losing.

4. Sentence complexity: sentence complexity is governed by the prefrontal cortex, which orders, sequences, and prioritizes ideas. PFC is turned off during stress – the neurons literally have cortisol receptors that depolarize them during stress. This forces the organism back on tried and true evolutionary strategies. Sentence complexity is therefore a marker of parasympathetic tone.

This is absolutely fascinating. It is simply a physiological explanation of the fact that it is harder to think when under stress. But it gives you something quantifiable to watch for.

And do they look at their opponent first or second? In primate fights monkeys don’t look at other monkeys unless they want aid.

Humans, of course, do the same. In confrontation, they look only at the opponent if they are confident of beating him. If they look around, they aren’t happy.

Obama has the forced, memorized facial expressions of a natural beta.

'Obama is a beta.' If I were a journalist, that would be my headline. But I am not interested in creating truth, rather in finding it (today, at least). I don’t wish to put words in Peter Freed’s mouth. He has made a technical interpretation of an observation of a particular gesture at a specific moment, nothing more. But I find it easy to take it as a general truth about Obama. He is a beta male, one of those who benefit by their ability to serve the leaders. They may become leaders themselves, but unless they can win, or inherit, alpha status, they are only surrogates, allowed to front for the real leader, by his gracious permission.

Many political leaders are mere figureheads, bureaucrats, with no real ability to lead. Obama is not Gordon Brown, or that Belgian chap with the glasses, but he isn’t an alpha male. Romney, perhaps.

Romney is raising his eyebrows frequently as though teaching in a caring way a young mentee. This is the behavior of a benevolent elder. Obama does not raise eyebrows as though teaching – but rather when surprised by his own ideas. This is the behavior of a talented student. In split screen, Romney seems to be higher status.

Hmmm. He knows his primatology. I wonder if Obama does.

In the split screen look at Obama’s flat forehead as he gazes at Romney. This means that cranial nerve 7 is not animating the face with nonverbal dominance signals. This studied eye contact, not automatic. I still say he’s feeling submissiveness signals from his limbic system, hypothalamus, feeding off Romney’s confidence, despite cognitively rejecting Romney’s legitimacy.

More fascinating insight into the physiology of primate confrontation and social hierarchy. This was, undoubtedly, a brutal, bloody battle. Both are fighting for something which probably means more to them than their lives, at least at that moment, and they have to convince a huge, unpredictable audience that they should live and their opponent die. The stress of these occasions must be enormous. It is only the preparation of the candidates, who have been doing this all their lives, that stopped them from screaming at each other like guests on Jerry Springer.


James Higham said...

Well, I've not seen it analysed in this kind of detail, even down to the eyebrows.

CIngram said...

Neither have I. The details of how certain nerves react to the perception and acceptance if one's own status in the group is particularly intetesting.

Sackerson said...

Beautiful HH pics. Isn't he lovely?