It was hard not to notice President Donald Trump’s body language during his State of the Union (SOTU) address. Throughout his 80-minute speech, he frequently raised his eyebrows, lifted his chin, and angled his body to his left to face his supporters. What do these nonverbal cues mean? According to Laura Dudley, assistant clinical professor of applied behavior analysis at Northeastern University, the answer lies in the eyes of the beholder.
“Do you like Trump?” she says. “Then his jutted chin probably signals to you that he is a strong leader. Do you hate Trump? Then his smile may signal to you that he is smug and self-serving.” When asked if it is possible to objectively assess trump’s body language, Laura feels that it may be difficult, but try to remember back to the first time you ever saw Trump. You probably didn’t have an opinion about him one way or the other. However, over time, Trump has been associated with many different statements, gestures, people, issues, and events that have likely led to some strong feelings. Whereas initially, Trump was neutral, from a behavioral perspective the sight of Trump’s face or the sound of his voice may now serve as a conditioned stimulus.
For example, if you’ve been affected by Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants, if you’re worried about his proposed changes to healthcare and how this may affect your family, then the very sight of Trump may elicit negative emotions such as anger or fear. On the other hand, if you’re a Trump supporter, if his message about putting America first has resonated with you, if you feel that Trump’s policies protect your job and your livelihood, then the sight of Trump may elicit positive feelings such as happiness or admiration.
When asked if we could extract something from the trump’s body language, Dudley opined that it’s important to remember that Trump’s address was written in advance. As would be expected, he probably practiced his delivery many times. His delivery was, for the most part, slow and deliberate, and he rarely veered off script off-script. If Trump’s message resonated with you previously, it probably still does. If you avoided the address altogether because the sight of Trump elicits feelings of anger, you probably don’t have plans to watch it now.