Tecce, who studies the causes and effects of nonverbal expressions, has become a much sought-after evaluator of political debates and speeches because of his research on eyeblink rates. His survey of televised presidential debates since 1980 indicates those candidates who blink fastest invariably lose the election.
By Tecce's yardstick, Al Gore fared better in the Oct. 3 presidential debate because his eyeblink rate averaged 48 per minute, compared to George W. Bush's 82. But last week's debate saw a dramatic reversal, he said: Bush dropped to 28 blinks per minute, while Gore went down to 35. (The results of Tuesday night's debate were unavailable at press time.)
According to Tecce, unpleasant feelings such as stress, anxiety, and pain tend to increase blink frequency while pleasant feelings, such as contentment and relaxation, tend to decrease frequency. A person blinks about 15 times a minute while in a quiet resting state. This rate goes up to 20-25 when a person is speaking, and appearing before an audience pushes the rate to 31-50.
Tecce's research has drawn increasing media attention, particularly this election year. During the past two weeks, Tecce has discussed his findings on NBC's "Today Show," National Public Radio, WLVI-TV and Chicago radio station WGN, among others, and in interviews with newspapers such as the Washington Post, Hartford Courant, Providence Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer and Kansas City Star.
"There are usually two kinds of inquiries," said Tecce. "Some are interested in the quirky, and want to sensationalize the debates. But then there are those who take it seriously, and are genuinely interested in the body of scientific evidence that comes with this work."
Tecce said he does encounter skepticism among journalists, who ask if eyeblink rates actually determine the outcome of presidential elections.
"I tell them that eyeblink rates are one of several visual cues that influence our perception of a candidate," he said. "This perception, in turn, is quite likely to be a factor in whether or not we vote for that person."
Explaining the lower eyeblink rates in the second Bush-Gore tilt, Tecce cited the event's more informal, roundtable setting, and the absence of stress that tends to accompany a first-time encounter.
Tecce notes that too little blinking can also be a liability, pointing out that while independent presidential candidate H. Ross Perot had by far the lowest rate during the 1992 debates, he ultimately failed to attract a large percentage of the electorate.
"Someone who seems to sport an unblinking reptilian stare can put off people, like someone who blinks upwards of 100 times per minute," he explained. "There is an optimal level of blink frequency that is pleasing to the eye of the beholder."
-Patricia Delaney and Sean Smith
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