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Politics Life Sci. 2010 Sep;29(2):55-72. doi: 10.2990/29_2_55.

Presidential laugh lines. Candidate display behavior and audience laughter in the 2008 primary debates.

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Department of Political Science, University of Arkansas, 428 Old Main, Fayetteville, AR 72701, USA.


Political humor has long been used by candidates to mobilize supporters by enhancing status or denigrating the opposition. Research concerning laughter provides insight into the building of social bonds; however, little research has focused on the nonverbal cues displayed by the individual making humorous comments. This study first investigates whether there is a relationship between facial display behavior and the presence and strength of laughter. Next, the analysis explores whether specific candidate displays during a humorous comment depend on the target of the comment. This paper analyzes the use of humor by Republican and Democratic candidates during ten 2008 presidential primary debates. Data analyzed here employs laughter as an indicator of a successful humorous comment and documents candidate display behavior in the seconds immediately preceding and during each laughter event. Findings suggest specific facial displays play an important communication role. Different types of smiles, whether felt, false, or fear-based, are related to who laughs as well as how intensely the audience is judged to laugh.

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