Body Language Experts Disagree On Biden's Aggressive Debate Performance, Say Ryan Was Nervous

Body language experts gave mixed reviews to Biden's aggressive VP debate performance.

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Vice President Joe Biden reacts to a question during the vice presidential debate at Centre College in Danville, Ky.

Nonverbal communication experts almost uniformly agreed that President Barack Obama's passive performance in the first presidential debate could serve a case study in what a candidate shouldn't do. But Biden's range of expressions during the VP debate last night—from smirking to teeth-baring to grins—is getting mixed reviews.

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Some say the vice president's nuanced communication strategy came off well. "While displaying anger/threat in his responses, the vice president nonetheless mitigated some of this aggression through verbal politeness, several times referring to Ryan as a 'friend,'" says Erik Bucy, a professor at Texas Tech University's college of media and communication, calling Biden's complex responses a form of "aggressive-belittlement."

"The potential genius in this strategy...[is] if there's a conflict between what's being said and what's shown (Ryan's assertions and Biden's reactions), the visuals tend to win out," he says.

But Jeff Thompson, a nonverbal communication researcher at Griffith University, believes something entirely different happened. Nonverbally, Thompson thinks Biden lost the debate, even eclipsing Al Gore's audible sighs and head shaking from the debate in 2000.

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"With his frequent laughter, smiling and was clear he was displeased with Ryan's comments," says Thompson. "However, his reaction displayed a lack of control and professionalism. At one point, he seemed to even be yelling at the moderator Martha Raddatz while he pointed his finger at her."

Thompson says Ryan was "not exceptional," but "when going against Biden's act [Thursday], he won because Biden lost."

Whether or not Biden's smirks and smiles were too much, they seem to have drawn attention away from signals of his opponent's nervousness.

Patrick Stewart, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, notes that the young congressman drank a number of times from his water glass, without actually drinking much of the water at all. Stewart says that action likely indicates higher stress – "with a dry mouth being associated with stress; at the same time, object manipulation can be seen as a form of displacement behavior, in which stress is 'released' through handling of that object," he says.

Bucy agrees Ryan was anxious at points at the debate, noting that the Wisconsin congressman at times pulled his lips to the sides or raised his eyebrows appearing "to exhibit some fear/evasion."

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But despite all the talk of Biden's famous zingers, nonverbal experts say Ryan may have come away with the laugh line of the night. In both an attack on Biden's tendency toward gaffes and a defense of Mitt Romney's comment about the 47 percent, Ryan said: "I think the Vice President very well knows that sometimes the words don't come out of the mouth the right way." As Ryan made the joke, Stewart says the VP candidate put on a full "amusement smile," an expression that encouraged the audience to laugh for a sustained four seconds.

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook or reach her at