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Audience Perceptions of Background Nonverbal Behaviors Displayed by Candidates in Televised Political Debates
Unformatted Document Text:  Background Behaviors: 11 Although previous literature has noted that communication on television is unique because it consists not only of what is said, but also what is shown and how it is presented (Pfau and Kang, 1991), prior research has focused almost exclusively on the content of political debates while overlooking the importance of nonverbal behaviors and the communication medium (Pfau & Kang, 1991). This study represents just one of few efforts to fill this gap by examing the impact of background nonverbal behaviors in televised debates. Future research should continue to explore this topic as well as the issues that limit the generalizability of this study. For example, in this study, the nonspeaker was never shown in the opposite role (i.e., speaking). It is possible that, given a chance to speak, his ratings might be different. Moreover, this study did not address the audience’s predispositions that might affect a debate. For example, Sigelman and Sigelman (1984) found that perceptions regarding the appropriateness of a candidate’s emotional displays in a debate depend on whether the perceiver favored the candidate. Had the participants favored the nonspeaker, they may have found his nonverbal behavior more appropriate. Finally, this study examined only one type of background behavior-- that which signaled disagreement. However, just as research has argued that violations of conversational rules are not necessarily negative (Braithwaite, 1997), it is possible that some background behavior in debates is acceptable. For example, what if a candidate indicates some agreement and some disagreement with a speaker? Will such behavior lead audiences to see the candidate as less biased and, in turn, more appropriate? Regardless of these and other limitations, this study should interest scholars who research impression management and political debates. It is apparent that we cannot neglect to explore the impact of nonverbal behaviors if we want to fully understand the process by which impressions are formed as well as the factors affecting communication. Indeed, according to Schrott and Lanoue (1992), in close elections, even minor effects can influence the outcome of a debate. This study suggests that a debater’s background behaviors can be such a factor.

Authors: Seiter, John.
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background image
Background Behaviors: 11
Although previous literature has noted that communication on television is unique
because it consists not only of what is said, but also what is shown and how it is presented (Pfau
and Kang, 1991), prior research has focused almost exclusively on the content of political
debates while overlooking the importance of nonverbal behaviors and the communication
medium (Pfau & Kang, 1991). This study represents just one of few efforts to fill this gap by
examing the impact of background nonverbal behaviors in televised debates. Future research
should continue to explore this topic as well as the issues that limit the generalizability of this
study. For example, in this study, the nonspeaker was never shown in the opposite role (i.e.,
speaking). It is possible that, given a chance to speak, his ratings might be different. Moreover,
this study did not address the audience’s predispositions that might affect a debate. For example,
Sigelman and Sigelman (1984) found that perceptions regarding the appropriateness of a
candidate’s emotional displays in a debate depend on whether the perceiver favored the
candidate. Had the participants favored the nonspeaker, they may have found his nonverbal
behavior more appropriate. Finally, this study examined only one type of background behavior--
that which signaled disagreement. However, just as research has argued that violations of
conversational rules are not necessarily negative (Braithwaite, 1997), it is possible that some
background behavior in debates is acceptable. For example, what if a candidate indicates some
agreement and some disagreement with a speaker? Will such behavior lead audiences to see the
candidate as less biased and, in turn, more appropriate?
Regardless of these and other limitations, this study should interest scholars who research
impression management and political debates. It is apparent that we cannot neglect to explore the
impact of nonverbal behaviors if we want to fully understand the process by which impressions
are formed as well as the factors affecting communication. Indeed, according to Schrott and
Lanoue (1992), in close elections, even minor effects can influence the outcome of a debate. This
study suggests that a debater’s background behaviors can be such a factor.


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