The previous blog looked at the ways in which your mind’s responses to the spoken word itself resembled excrement. By joyous fortune, we can now move onto the ‘ephemera’ if you will – things external to the speech which have no business affecting your responses.
These largely revolve around the appearance and reputation of the speaker. Within that, there are two intertwined issues – whether the person is ‘likeable’ in the sense of personable, charismatic, good-looking etc., and whether a person is ‘suitable’ to be arguing for a policy that you might agree with, which has more to do with class, ethnic and gender prejudices (which can themselves inform your criteria for likeability).
The ‘Halo Error’ is a cognitive bias whereby we tend to assume that if a person is good/bad at one thing, they will be good/bad across the board. I hinted at it in the previous post by suggesting we have an irrational cultural link between good speaking and
good leadership. In this case, however, it can go a little deeper, as a person’s physical appearance and attractiveness can greatly influence how we perceive everything they do. As is the case with many other things, the Halo Effect (and inverse, the Devil Effect) are fascinating and pervade far more than politics – education, social interaction, criminal sentencing, personality and happiness… Read up on it.
Now, if a dastardly speaker is trying to appeal to your voting-muscle, they will almost certainly attempt to woo your eyes as well as your ears. How they do this depends on fashion and electorate – a union member canvassing for an industrial city seat may dress differently to a Prefect running for Head Boy. Nonetheless, both do well to conform to the appropriate image stereotypes attached to customary competence. Neither are likely to be unkempt; both project the image of leadership.
Pick-Up Gurus (“Master PUAs”) often explain sexual attraction and success as partly depending on one’s “Alpha Male” status. They believe that very specific personality, appearance and body-language traits all indicate one’s confidence, decisiveness and virility, explaining that women are still controlled by caveman-like motivators driving them to sexually select ‘leaders of men’ most likely to protect and feed their offspring. PUA theory/technique efficacy are two large debates not easily summarised, but it seems fair to say that many academics, and hundreds of thousands of customers worldwide, see truth in the pudding.
One element to ‘Alpha’ attraction is dress; another is body language. With dress, it’s all cultural – certain nations at certain times thought moustaches were the mark of trustworthiness – other places at other times attach value to long hair, dimples or large feet… Body language, which can be learnt and controlled, is touted as conveying up to 93% of meaning. Even ignoring that inflated-sounding figure, its significance is undeniable. A speaker’s tone, facial movements, voluntary and involuntary motor movement, stance, eye contact and co-ordination all affect our perceptions of the speaker, and of their speech. To over-state the case, it’s possible that Obama is in power because more of America has a crush on him than they did McCaine. I certainly do…
Asides appearance and BL, which can to some extent be optimised, there are elements of shittiness your brain will choose which the speaker certainly did not. Most of all, their race, age and gender. I can’t throw you accurate data about these monsters, but Sam Harris’ c-MRI scanning apparently revealed that we are all racist. At least, our initial reactions are. That first glance, we feel less in-tune with people of a different ethnicity than our own. You can tie this up with gender, where women are traditionally viewed as less suitable political candidates (tied in with historic baggage: original sin, hysteria, no political tradition; biological baggage: weaker sex, less rational, higher voices; and personal baggage: her attractiveness, whether you’d fuck her/she might steal your lover). Yes, this is all reductive. It’s a blog. Paint in the nuances for yourself.
Tie all of this in with more localised appearance-based criteria such as what subculture they appear to sport (sports team, public school, hairy biker, hippy), their regional accent, their presumed wealth, media profile/publicly understood ‘history’, their track-record and health, and you have a potent cocktail of judgement criteria that (once again) have shit-all to do with the validity of what they are saying.
Unfortunately, given our cultural expectations about a speaker, there are some things they cannot say, however ‘right’ the speaker might privately believe them to be. To have an open, mainstream, academic discussion about taboos like paedophilia, incest, eugenics or infanticide would absolutely ruin a candidate’s chances. Because we are already decided on those issues, and no new information can possibly alter that opinion (as will be discussed in another piece). Which means that the candidate will, broadly speaking, only suggest policies that are likely to be quite popular, discouraging innovation/radical solutions which may well better address problems.
This can lead us to ponder social determinism, if weakly. We can certainly entertain the notion that, if a speaker appears to conform to their audience’s expectations and stereotypes, and their speech does not contain anything so offensively ‘Other’ that the overall-impression of the speaker as ‘one of us’ is not broken, then they will have a very good chance of clearing up the votes, if faced by an outsider. I wouldn’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that Harvard-education, Oxbridge-education, tailored suits, decent looks and fine rhetoric might have played a part in determining the current leaders of the UK and US – instead I’ll leave you pondering the meaning of another hilarious recourse of the eloquent: circumlocution.