Santos, Now Booted from the House, Got Elected as a Master of Duplicity – Here’s How It Worked

Empirical research has long revealed that voters are overwhelmingly influenced by politicians’ nonverbal communicationIn one experiment, participants were shown 10-second clips of unfamiliar gubernatorial debates. The participants were asked to predict who won the election.

Participants who saw muted 10-second clips – making their judgments solely on nonverbal cues – were able to predict which candidate would go on to win. But those who watched the video with the sound were no better at picking the winner than if they picked randomly without ever watching or listening to anything. Voters make their judgments of a politician’s competence, it turns out, based on a 1-second glance at the politician’s face.

Another study also found that politicians’ facial expressions have the power to move us, literally: People watching clips of Ronald Reagan looking friendly adjusted their facial muscles accordingly and mimicked his smile, and people watching clips of Reagan looking angry tended to furrow their brow, too.

How Santos Does It
Santos speaks with certitude. He has a charming, friendly and interactive manner – all sincere demeanor cues. He makes intense eye contact without fidgeting. He dresses well and is pleasant looking.

He was able to make up lies out of whole cloth and have them believed – a feat rarely accomplished by liars. He exudes confidence.

Santos dresses with sartorial elegance. He wears chic eyeglasses and sunglasses, accessorized with bright but not tacky jewelry. All this is complemented by one of his signature fleeces or sweaters, typically worn over a collared dress shirt and under a smart jacket. Santos even bought his campaign staff Brooks Brothers shirts to wear.

In my experiments, which have shown that voters base their judgment of politicians’ trustworthiness almost entirely from perceptions of demeanor, I found that Republicans are especially susceptible to demeanor cues. Republican voters will disbelieve their own honest politician if they perceive that the politician’s demeanor is insincere. But they will believe their own politician if they perceive sincerity.

Santos’ believable demeanor follows in the lineage of other con artists who could deceive absurdly yet adroitly. Disgraced financier Bernie Madoff dressed well, looked dignified, acted friendly and cordial, and his resting face was a smiling expression. The Fyre Festival fraudster Billy McFarland also had a resting face that was a smiling, aw-shucks expression, and acted harmless and friendly.

And Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos – who became the youngest female billionaire in history – faked a deep voice, walked upright with perfect posture, smiled and conveyed unrelenting confident poise, and maintained an unblinking gaze. All this enabled her to tell lies to some of the richest, most accomplished, intelligent titans of industry.

Madoff, McFarland and Holmes could look people in the eye and steal their money – swindling largely through the same sorts of demeanor cues that Santos exhibits.

McFarlandHolmes and Santos have the ability to smile with their upper teeth showing while they are answering tough questions in interviews, which research shows exudes trustworthiness.

Fool Me Once …
Just because someone speaks confidently, dresses well and acts friendly does not mean the person is honest. Pay attention to what people say – the content of their verbal messaging.

Don’t fall prey to body language or seemingly sincere behavioral impressions, which actually have no correlation to actual truthfulness. As my research has shown, the appearance of sincerity is misleading. It is a myth that eye contact means someone is telling you the truth and that a roving gaze or elevated blinking means they are lying.

Some people just look honest but they are pulling the proverbial wool over your eyes. Some people look sketchy and appear unbelievable, but what they say is truthful.

Santos’ disgrace is a teachable moment for citizens. As the proverb goes: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

David E. Clementson is Assistant Professor, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Georgia. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.