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Look away, John McCain

- September 27, 2008


Down in Dixieland last night, John McCain looked away.

Numerous commentators on TV, in the print media, and in the blogosphere have noted McCain’s steadfast avoidance of eye contact with Barack Obama during the first presidential debate. And because every detail of the debaters’ performance gets subjected to intensive scrutiny, they wonder what to make of McCain’s disinclination to look Obama in the eye.

Maybe McCain is just a shy guy? (Shy people avoid eye contact.) That would be an aspect of his personality that had passed unnoticed until now. At least insofar as I’m aware, no one has ever accused John McCain of being a shrinking violet.

Or perhaps it was a signal of McCain’s contempt for Obama, and/or a manifestation of some deep-seated tendency on McCain’s part to demonize his opponents? That possibility was raised by Chris Matthews and Eugene Robinson in their post-mortem discussion of the debate, here.

Attached to the clip you’ve just watched is another interpretation, drawn from research on animal behavior. Ethologists have discovered that in the animal world, eye contact is a sign of dominance and the avoidance thereof is a sign of submission. That’s why, if you meet a bear in the woods and you don’t have Sarah Palin along to blow him away, you’re supposed to avoid eye contact with said bear; otherwise he is likely to perceive you as a threat, and that just cannot be a good thing.

Anyway, look at reader TB’s comment: “I study monkey behavior — low ranking monkeys don’t look at high ranking monkeys. In a physical, instinctive sense, Obama owned McCain tonight …” Ethologists like TB have indeed compiled a great deal of evidence about the hierarchical meaning and implications of eye contact. Their findings can’t simply be extrapolated to human behavior. But we humans are, after all, animals, so this isn’t as far-fetched as it may initially seem.

Here’s a little light background reading for you on the subject of eye contact, so that if somebody wants to engage you in a conversation about the debate you’ll have something to say. Note, for example, that “In Western culture eye contact is usually a sign of confidence, of interest in the conversation, of openness and frankness.” Presumably, then, the avoidance of eye contact is usually a sign of lack of confidence, of lack of interest in the conversation, and/or of lack of openness and frankness. Of course, what is “usually” the case may not be true in any particular case. Maybe there’s another explanation altogether for McCain’s lack of eye contact. But now you’re equipped to bring up the idea that McCain may have been cowed by the occasion or by Obama, or that he wasn’t interested in the conversation in the first place (and bear in mind that he decided to participate only late in the day), or that — perish the thought for a politician! — he wasn’t being completely open or frank in his answers.