At the level of US presidential politics, a single gesture can be worth a thousand words. George HW Bush’s impatient downward glance at his wristwatch in the 1992 presidential debate, and Dan Quayle’s Adam’s apple jump in the 1988 vice-presidential debate – as Lloyd Bentsen said “You’re no Jack Kennedy” – come to mind. At last week’s debate at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, another type of behavior stood out as a potent nonverbal signal. The specific sign was immobility.
The debate began as one by one the seven candidates were called to the podium. The first one called, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, bullishly strode past the curtain with no hesitation at all. The second to be called, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, not only hesitated , but became starkly immobile – indeed catatonic – and waited in the curtained wings offstage. After viewing the video several times, my analysis of Carson’s strange behavior – conjectural and based on body language alone – points in two directions: either severe stage fright or momentary confusion, possibly brought on by sedation.
Stage fright involves a sudden involuntary cessation of body movement, usually in response to a stimulus of fear related to public speaking. As he hesitated in the wings after hearing his name called, Carson’s entire body froze. He stood flat-footed with his torso locked in the upright position, hands tightly clasped and arms pulled in flat against his lower abdomen. The freeze reaction is a protective reflex controlled by the brain’s amygdala. In it, the body may automatically tense up as the nervous system mobilizes either to fight or flee. Carson telegraphed an impulse toward the latter option but was apparently unable to move.
Sedation involves a drug-induced blockage of anxiety and fear. In mild doses, it aids relaxation and mitigates the effects of stranger anxiety and stage fright. Carson’s strangely immobile face and body in the wings may or may not have been due to an ingested sedative, but his immobility, unresponsiveness and seeming confusion as he hesitated backstage matched the symptoms of sedation.
The third candidate called, Donald Trump, gave off a maternal, caring attitude as he seemed to feel Carson’s pain. He spoke what looked like reassuring words to Carson and gently touched his arm. There was some confusion as Carson stepped forward and stopped after hearing Ted Cruz’s name called loudly. With a smile and a shrug, the senator from Texas brushed past.
Florida senator Marco Rubio, the fifth candidate to be called, smiled at rivals Trump and Carson as he amiably breezed by them to his podium onstage. At this time the ABC News moderators became confused about the order of calling and who had actually come to the podiums. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush was called, shrugged and passed by the hesitant duo still waiting in the wings. Rubio and Bush took the opportunity to touch Trump on the arm as they passed him, deferring to him as the alpha male, much as male chimpanzees do.
Ultimately, after a final curtain call, Carson did take the stage. A confident Trump then came out, too, after two calls, and waved at the crowd. And last, seemingly not called at all at first, came a bemused Ohio governor John Kasich, smiling and waving to loud screams and applause.
These are some of the memorable nonverbal moments in the latest presidential debate. In the case of Carson, these are moments that give voters pause. We cannot know what really goes on in a candidate’s head, but demeanor and body language can offer reasonable clues.
Dr David Givens is the director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies
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