Monday, September 29, 2008

Primate science of American politics

Some interesting commentary on the body language of the candidates during the first presidential debate. Here's the first:

And here's another note from TPM Reader TB. I guess I'm really not sure quite how to characterize it ..."

I think people really are missing the point about McCain's failure to look at Obama. McCain was afraid of Obama. It was really clear--look at how much McCain blinked in the first half hour. I study monkey behavior--low ranking monkeys don't look at high ranking monkeys. In a physical, instinctive sense, Obama owned McCain tonight and I think the instant polling reflects that.

So McCain may have given away his status as a low-ranking monkey. I'd never even considered monkey rank.

Here's the second, from Frans De Waal:

Looking at the body language of the candidates, however, I did not come away with the same impression. A confident alpha male chimpanzee would never show studied indifference. I have seen such behavior only in males who were terrified of their challenger. Chimpanzees provoke higher-ups by making impressive displays in their vicinity, hooting loudly in their direction, and sometimes lobbing objects at them to see what happens. Will the other startle or will he return the challenge? It's a war of nerves.

A self-confident alpha male just approaches his challenger and sets him straight, either by attacking him or performing a spectacular display of his own. No avoidance of eye contact: he takes the bull by the horns.

It rather is the hesitant or fearful alpha male who avoids looking straight at the other, sidesteps him as if nothing happened, ducks when objects fly, and just hopes that the other will give up and go away. This may work, but also signals weakness. One day, the challenger will pick up courage and do something more drastic, such as hitting the old guy's back. If the latter still tries to ignore his challenger after this, he's toast.

I read the body language between McCain and Obama as that between a senior male being challenged by a remarkably confident junior one. The senior didn't know exactly what to do. He avoided eye contact and body orientation, probably realizing that a direct confrontation might not go his way.

If McCain was an alpha male, it was an incredibly insecure one.

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There has also been some caustic commentary on the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. Particularly on her disasterous interview with Katie Couric. I liked this comment.

She makes George W. Bush sound like Cicero.

The latest SNL opening act is also very good; but, as Andrew Sullivan notes, "There is no way Saturday Night Life could make more fun of Palin than she made of herself."]. Watch:

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Update: This one from Matt Yglesias is worth quoting too:

The press likes the unusual. The man bites dog story. The maverick senators who do weird stuff. But just because men who bite dogs make for good copy doesn’t make biting a dog a good idea.