February 2, 2004

The Sound of Two Eyes Not Blinking. (This is from Salon Premium, so you'll have to click through an ad.)
[A]lthough [General Wesley] Clark's low blink rate commands attention, it can also blind some culture watchers to the content of his message, which does not necessarily bode well for his campaign. "You can't hear what he's saying anymore because you're just watching his eyes and waiting for him to blink," said Kurt F., the blogger architect in Virginia. "It's like visual noise."

Salon presents numerous theories on why General Clark doesn't blink, which Wonkette gathers and summarizes nicely.

H. Ross Perot also had the low-blink idiosyncracy, which was widely noted in the 1992 debate, as psychprof Joseph Tecce noted a while back:
"Someone who seems to sport an unblinking reptilian stare can put off people, like someone who blinks upwards of 100 times per minute," he explained. "There is an optimal level of blink frequency that is pleasing to the eye of the beholder."

Unlike too little blinking, too much blinking has been studied. The conclusion is clear, according to Salon: scientists say it betrays "deception or stress."

If, as asserted, a high blink rate signals deception or stress, then the Republicans have done a lot to seem mistrustful and manic. During the fall 2000 presidential debate, for example, the Hartford Courant's Susan Campbell counted the number of times Al Gore and George W. Bush blinked. Bush won (or, rather, lost), with a final tally of 2,867 to Gore's 1,808. In 1996, Bob Dole entered the annals of presidential-debate blinking history when, after being questioned about the nation's economy, he hit a blink rate of 163 a minute. And Richard Nixon's blink rate increased markedly during the Watergate hearings and press conferences.

Thanks for your efforts, Susan...

I wonder if these scientists are taking into account that some candidates may be wearing contact lenses that they aren't completely comfortable with when they face the cameras. If Bush normally goes with glasses, then switches to lenses for TV and Gore did not, that alone could account for the difference.

But the real question isn't whether blinking a lot or not blinking a lot really is evidence of deception or a "reptilian" nature or whatever. The real question is how the viewer instinctively, intuitively responds to a candidate. That is, the mechanism that should concern us is our own reptilian nature.

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