Technology with attitude

Facial Coding of Palin and Biden Debate


Editor’s Note: Justin here. I’m very excited to welcome Dan Hill to Donklephant, author of Face Time, a book about the political candidates and how their emotions play a vital role in the campaign. He’ll be penning some editorials about the “facial coding” that went on with each candidate after every debate.

Here’s part of his bio: Dan Hill is a recognized authority on the role of emotions in consumer and employee behavior with over a decade of experience running his scientific, emotional insights consultancy: Sensory Logic, Inc. Dan has appeared on FOX NEWS, CNN, and MSNBC regarding his analysis of the 2008 Presidential Election. Press coverage of Dan and his company include The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age,, China Forbes, Entrepreneur, LA Times and Kiplinger’s.

What’s emerging is a split Palin persona based on how she emotes during her public moments. At one end of the spectrum, disasterously, is of course the embarassing Charles Gibson and Katie Couric appearances, in which the usually high energy Palin has faltered. There was the suddenly still, lady-like Palin who politely crossed her hands across her lap while hoping for help in defining the Bush Doctrine – accompanied by an eye-brow that show up in fear.

Then with Couric, Palin resorted to wrinkling her nose in disdain and narrowing her eyebrows as she also glared at Couric.

Come debate time, that Palin went away and the Palin of the St. Paul convention speech reappeared. There were lots of natural smiles…

…and when she wrinkled her nose it often came with a wink, and a nod, as she much more vigorously and comfortably took on the Democrats.

From what she emoted as evident from her facial muscle activity – i.e., facial coding – Palin was vivacious and at ease.

But the focus group of voters I observed on behalf of a major network felt differently, finding Palin’s folksy ways too folksy, leading to much more of an emotional response to Palin (twice as much as to Biden), but the overriding emotional response was contempt, shown by the voters’ mouths curling up in a smirk.

Biden drew plenty of smirks, too (1/3rd of all the response to him were also contempt), but the single most emotive moment in the evening for him wasn’t about showing or eliciting smirks from voters. Instead, as he spoke of being a single parent after his wife’s untimely death, the corners of his mouth both tightened in resolution (anger) and drooped ever so slightly in sadness.

Otherwise, Biden varied between the very occasional electric smile…

…and a more chiding, concerned look.

His mouth drooped down and pushed out, in an expression of bitter disgust at times.

At other times, his chin would rise in a sign of anger and disgust, often accompanied by a tight mouth that signals anger.

Most common of all was his narrowing of the eyes, again a sign of anger.

In short, Biden was stern – angry and disgusted with Palin – giving evidence in non-verbal signals his feelings toward her, which was safer than either Gore’s notorious sighs of 2000 or making a condescending remark aloud.

Who was the most effective in facial coding terms? Palin, for while Biden won on the talking points dimension, on feeling points she offered more hope, more energy, more “spunk.” Remember Lou Grant telling Mary Tyler Moore: “You’ve got spunk,” and then adding: “I hate spunk.”

Well, Lou would hate Palin for sure!