Romney's Body Language Deciphered

Expert Chris Kowal used technology to read the candidates debate game faces.

ByAbby D. Phillip
October 04, 2012, 11:45 AM

Oct. 4, 2012— -- Mitt Romney looked a little uneasy firing Big Bird during Wednesday night's presidential debate, said body language expert Chris Kowal.

"When he talked about Big Bird he looked down at his right and I suspect he was actually uncomfortable making that point," Kowal said. "If you're uncomfortable with something you don't give great eye contact. You might look away."

Romney's discomfort was likely compounded because he made his now famous Big Bird comment while saying he would cut the funding to PBS, the company that employs the debate's moderator Jim Lehrer.

Kowal spent the night after the debate using a computer program to analyze the facial expressions of Romney and President Obama for clues about what they were really thinking during the one-on-one showdown.

He used a program that closely monitors the muscle movements of a person's face. When those muscles move, they may reveal underlying emotions like happiness, sadness, anger, and confusion.

The computer's readings, however, still have to be interpreted and may not be as infallible as they are on the crime show "Lie to Me" where a cop expert in body language reads suspects' faces to determine who is lying.

Former FBI agent and body language expert Joe Navarro said that facial expressions only tell about 10 percent of the story of a person's emotion.

"It's never been proven scientifically that looking at facial expression is the only way to determine what is really going on in the mind," Navarro said, adding that a person uses the whole body to express emotions.

Hands, for example, played a big role in this debate, he said.

"The hands are useful for illustrating, they're useful for getting attention," Navarro said. "But they also communicate emphasis, which is something we saw with Romney.

Romney won style points from both Democrats and Republicans after the debate for appearing aggressive.

Romney, the widely acknowledged winner of the first debate, mostly registered negative emotions, Kowal said. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"What Romney was able to do was really show anger, contempt, scorn and pride. Those are the emotions that his voters in his base feel," said Kowal, an assistant professor at Purdue University who has studied both Obama's and Romney's facial expressions since 2007.

Although the emotions Obama expressed were "positive" on the whole, he spent most of the debate displaying very little emotion at all, Kowal said.

"Overall it was a very neutral valence, which is a little concerning because the candidates need to make an emotional connection and I think Obama did not," Kowal said. "He was not expressive enough to really connect."

Republicans claim in a new ad that Obama sported a "smirk" at times during the debate, which they suggest is a sign that he was "uncomfortable" and struggling with his answers. Kowal, however, said that in that moment Obama's face registered more frustration than uncertainty, according to his software.

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