Research Topic

Understanding the Role of Non-Verbal Displays in Politics

About this Research Topic

In the essay 'Smile' the noted MIT Professor Alan Lightman described how the complex social interplay between a man and a woman is facilitated by one simple facial display. The contraction of the bilateral risorius and zygomaticus muscles which connect the corners of the lips to the zygomatic arch and results in a smile and the subsequent perception of this facial display in others drives a range of subsequent behaviours in the immediate social group. In the Lightman essay such behaviour took the form of the man moving closer to the woman to engage in conversation. But Lightman’s essay was more than a mere romantic take - it was also a forensic examination into the possible biological mechanisms that underpin the perception of the smile in others. Yet even armed with such a detailed analysis Lightman admits that he cannot answer the most fundamental of all questions - and that is why does social behaviour occur after the perception of such non-verbal displays. One can start to address Lightman’s question by studying a range of different social contexts and one context that affects us all is politics.

The study of these non-verbal displays in political exchange provides scholars with a natural experiment of sorts by allowing for a replication, of sorts, of our evolutionary past when leadership was in-person and face-to-face between a limited number of followers. While modern media expands the reach of leadership to millions of putative followers and visually frames what they see, the decision-making process employed in which personality traits useful for responding to potential future threats and opportunities are inferred from relatively static capacity cues and patterns in more dynamic display behaviour. In other words, scholars using traditional ‘rational actor’ models of leader choice assume irrationality because voters do not rely upon policy preferences and partisanship, instead using short-hand decision rules based upon candidate physical characteristics may be working from flawed assumptions. Physical capacity cues and non-verbal display behaviour by the candidates may provide more salient information regarding the environment they will prospectively lead followers through.

Thus, in our mediated era of television and internet video, choice between leadership candidates is informed by how candidates are visually presented. Political speeches and, perhaps more importantly, highly orchestrated debates where the protagonists tend to follow certain display rules while they are pitted against each other side-by-side allows for not just policy learning, but non-verbal comparisons. As the ‘winners’ of these debates will be granted access to immense power that can, sometimes, drive the direction of statehood by studying the role of non-verbal displays in political discourse, and the subsequent effects that such displays have on voter behaviour, scholars can converge on a greater understanding of ecologically valid social behaviour that impacts society in general.

Our ability to communicate in a non-verbal domain is far more complex than Lightman could have possibly imagined. Take for example the complex musculature on the human face that allows for the production of nuanced displays that facilitate the communication of a wide range of traits from effective leadership to even political competency. Transmission of such processes go far beyond the communication of an affective state that merely indicates how a person feels at a particular point in time. Indeed, such is the sophistication of the face that emerging work has even shown that subtle differences in the display of the smile can convey reward, affiliation or even dominance within the immediate social group. These are traits that would clearly impact the outcome of any competition for political power, yet empirical examination of their importance is scarce.

Despite the finding that such a diverse portfolio of traits can be communicated by a small set of nuanced differences in the smile it is not yet known what role, if any, other facial micro-displays may have in driving subsequent behaviour. Furthermore, how can facial displays be used to support a political manifesto and how can it be used to negate an opponent’s manifesto? What role do other, non-facial displays, have in the complex social intercourse that manifests in every day political discourse?

This Research Topic will, we hope, go some way to answering these questions and in doing so address Lightman’s simple yet fundamental question.

The submissions to this Research Topic will consolidate evidence from a wide range of approaches to converge on a greater understanding of the role that non-verbal displays have in the political arena and in doing so will further highlight the importance of such displays in helping us to understand human social behaviour in general. Submissions are welcomed from a range of perspectives and techniques and we encourage theoretical commentaries that address various questions as well as original reports. Taken together the submissions to this Research Topic will provide a framework for scholars within the social sciences who wish to explore the further the opportunities that the study of such non-verbal behaviour may provide.


Keywords: politics, non verbal communication, facial displays, functional brain imaging, dominance, leadership, humour, action units, body communication


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

In the essay 'Smile' the noted MIT Professor Alan Lightman described how the complex social interplay between a man and a woman is facilitated by one simple facial display. The contraction of the bilateral risorius and zygomaticus muscles which connect the corners of the lips to the zygomatic arch and results in a smile and the subsequent perception of this facial display in others drives a range of subsequent behaviours in the immediate social group. In the Lightman essay such behaviour took the form of the man moving closer to the woman to engage in conversation. But Lightman’s essay was more than a mere romantic take - it was also a forensic examination into the possible biological mechanisms that underpin the perception of the smile in others. Yet even armed with such a detailed analysis Lightman admits that he cannot answer the most fundamental of all questions - and that is why does social behaviour occur after the perception of such non-verbal displays. One can start to address Lightman’s question by studying a range of different social contexts and one context that affects us all is politics.

The study of these non-verbal displays in political exchange provides scholars with a natural experiment of sorts by allowing for a replication, of sorts, of our evolutionary past when leadership was in-person and face-to-face between a limited number of followers. While modern media expands the reach of leadership to millions of putative followers and visually frames what they see, the decision-making process employed in which personality traits useful for responding to potential future threats and opportunities are inferred from relatively static capacity cues and patterns in more dynamic display behaviour. In other words, scholars using traditional ‘rational actor’ models of leader choice assume irrationality because voters do not rely upon policy preferences and partisanship, instead using short-hand decision rules based upon candidate physical characteristics may be working from flawed assumptions. Physical capacity cues and non-verbal display behaviour by the candidates may provide more salient information regarding the environment they will prospectively lead followers through.

Thus, in our mediated era of television and internet video, choice between leadership candidates is informed by how candidates are visually presented. Political speeches and, perhaps more importantly, highly orchestrated debates where the protagonists tend to follow certain display rules while they are pitted against each other side-by-side allows for not just policy learning, but non-verbal comparisons. As the ‘winners’ of these debates will be granted access to immense power that can, sometimes, drive the direction of statehood by studying the role of non-verbal displays in political discourse, and the subsequent effects that such displays have on voter behaviour, scholars can converge on a greater understanding of ecologically valid social behaviour that impacts society in general.

Our ability to communicate in a non-verbal domain is far more complex than Lightman could have possibly imagined. Take for example the complex musculature on the human face that allows for the production of nuanced displays that facilitate the communication of a wide range of traits from effective leadership to even political competency. Transmission of such processes go far beyond the communication of an affective state that merely indicates how a person feels at a particular point in time. Indeed, such is the sophistication of the face that emerging work has even shown that subtle differences in the display of the smile can convey reward, affiliation or even dominance within the immediate social group. These are traits that would clearly impact the outcome of any competition for political power, yet empirical examination of their importance is scarce.

Despite the finding that such a diverse portfolio of traits can be communicated by a small set of nuanced differences in the smile it is not yet known what role, if any, other facial micro-displays may have in driving subsequent behaviour. Furthermore, how can facial displays be used to support a political manifesto and how can it be used to negate an opponent’s manifesto? What role do other, non-facial displays, have in the complex social intercourse that manifests in every day political discourse?

This Research Topic will, we hope, go some way to answering these questions and in doing so address Lightman’s simple yet fundamental question.

The submissions to this Research Topic will consolidate evidence from a wide range of approaches to converge on a greater understanding of the role that non-verbal displays have in the political arena and in doing so will further highlight the importance of such displays in helping us to understand human social behaviour in general. Submissions are welcomed from a range of perspectives and techniques and we encourage theoretical commentaries that address various questions as well as original reports. Taken together the submissions to this Research Topic will provide a framework for scholars within the social sciences who wish to explore the further the opportunities that the study of such non-verbal behaviour may provide.


Keywords: politics, non verbal communication, facial displays, functional brain imaging, dominance, leadership, humour, action units, body communication


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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Submission Deadlines

10 January 2019 Abstract
12 January 2020 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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Topic Editors

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Submission Deadlines

10 January 2019 Abstract
12 January 2020 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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