Candidates’ moves can outweigh their words

NYU / UC BERKELEY (US) — A new website matches the words and gestures of President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney to reveal their differing word-by-word emphasis.

The study, available at, highlights which words each presidential candidate emphasized through digital motion-tracking of their body language.

On the site, users can scroll over a term mentioned by both candidates, and see how much gesture weight or emphasis they put behind each word, as well as see the phrase in which the term was used. Gesture weight is shown by the size of the square that accompanies each word.


The work bolsters what political analysts often focus on: what’s trending on Twitter or how many times candidates mention specific words. Lost in these metrics is the conviction behind these terms. Do candidates truly reveal their dedication to addressing the federal deficit by mentioning it multiple times in a debate? Or are there other ways to gauge their sincerity?

“When you listen to politicians speaking, your response is based not only on what they say, but how they speak,” explains New York University’s Chris Bregler, a professor at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and a developer of the analytical tool.

“Physical motions of speakers determine how voters feel about them. How they move influences whether you believe they are standing behind what they are saying—or if you get the impression they are simply repeating a memorized list of terms. A speaker’s physical movements—arms, legs, shoulders, and facial expression—can undermine or even contradict the verbal message.”

With this in mind, Bregler’s team and his colleague Peggy Hackney, part of University of California, Berkeley’s Theater Dance and Performance Studies program, analyzed all three presidential debates, examining over half a million high definition video frames, sounds, words, and gestures.

They then assigned a “gesture weight” to each word the candidates uttered. “Gesture weight” is a calculation of how forcefully the speaker performs a particular gesture.

Who emphasized what?

The study, conducted in NYU’s Movement Laboratory, found both candidates had more gestures that involved the whole body during their acceptance speeches than in the presidential debates. The most full-body gesture movements, also called Posture-Gesture Mergers (PGMs), occurred when the candidates were stating their own beliefs and lauding their own accomplishments, with emphasis added in their beliefs by those body motions.

When it came to specific terms, Obama emphasized “jobs,” “business,” and “companies” more than Romney did, especially in the last debate. Romney emphasized “government” more than he did other terms, measured by how often he cited it using large gesture involvement.

Obama mentioned “government” only twice in the last debate, but with much larger gesture involvement than did Romney.

Obama’s gesture strength when he directly addressed Romney (i.e., “Governor Romney”) increased from the first debate to the second debate, confirming what many pundits saw as a more aggressive performance by the president in the second match-up.

Although Obama frequently used the words “Governor Romney” in the first debate, he did not reinforce these works with his body movements. The comprehensive computer tracked analysis of the presidential debates also confirmed that Romney was pushing back more on Obama, with increased gesture emphasis when mentioning “president.”

Many of Romney’s PGMs came when he pointed out something negative in his view of the Obama administration, rather than something about his own governing agenda.

Source: New York University