The Psychology Behind Trump & Clinton's Debating Styles

When it comes to discussing psychology and the presidential debates, a lot of energy has been expended wondering about the psyches of the two contenders. Is Trump a narcissist? Does Clinton's email scandal reveal an embedded sense of entitlement? But there's something more interesting at play than just guessing at psychological make-up (and more complex; identifying that powerful people like power and are generally fond of keeping it is hardly a breakthrough). How are the candidates planning on using psychological tricks to win the debate on September 26 when they go head-to-head? What ground does Trump hope to gain with his shouting, domineering, and impulsiveness, and what's Clinton using to bolster her focused responses and killer stare?

The things that prove utterly convincing in presidential debates aren't necessarily what you might think. We're all innately tuned to particular signals; how people speak, how they move, whether they sweat, stammer or roll their eyes, all create subtle impressions that add up to attractive, or less attractive, candidates. An elegant argumentative slam-dunk is useless if the person doesn't know how to use the psychology of their opponent, and of the audience, to their advantage. It stretches to tiny details, too; a fascinating study after the 2008 election showed that HDTV's advent worked against McCain, because viewers could see his wrinkles in contrast to Obama's fresher face.

The teams behind both Clinton and Trump are arming them both with talking points and with psychological battle gear. What will convince, what will detract, and what might blow up in their faces?

The Psychology Of Trump's Debating Style

Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Much of Trump's narrative as a candidate has been built around a perception of his off-the-cuff "authenticity," a psychological tactic designed to appeal to voters who feel distant from seasoned politicians. The tactic is on full display in his debate preparations, with his advisers spreading the idea that he isn't apparently over-preparing, eschewing traditional fake debates with advisers and long prep sessions for a more "off-the-cuff" approach. (Whether this is true or a carefully cultivated image of laissez faire is up for debate in itself.)

And his particular brand of authenticity, an apparently primal, knee-jerk approach (which has also made him rather gaffe-prone), has been allied to a fundamental psychological division. The Atlantic, in one of the best characterizations of the competition in the entire campaign cycle, has called the Trump-Clinton clash "id versus superego." Sigmund Freud divided the human psyche into three parts, the id, the ego, and the superego. Trump represents the id: immediate urges, irrational thoughts, and inherently infantile pursuit of pleasure. It's the part of us that wants ice cream now, fears things that go bump in the night, and doesn't do any deep thinking. Clinton is the superego, the moral and intellectual restraint that keeps the id in check. Appealing to the id has been, for Trump, very successful: keeping things simple and on the level of primary desires is a powerful strategy, and one with historical precedent. Historian of American politics Dr. Kyle Livie tells Bustle, "Voters tend to identify most with candidates they can see not only as a leader, but as someone who understands their experience and shares their basic values."

The celebration of the id isn't the only psychological manifesto revealed by The Donald's likely debating style, though. His use of dominance tactics like shouting (Jane Goodall likened them to chimpanzee hierarchical displays) is designed to make him read, on a very easy-to-understand level, as if he is in command of the stage. Loudness is one of the classic expressions of dominance for males, along with talking fast, both of which Trump excels at. (Interestingly, talking a lot is far more of a dominating sign for men than for women; a study of the U.S. Senate in 2012 found that women were rated as less powerful if they talked for a long time, while men were rated as more powerful. Trump's psychological onslaught may include tempting Clinton to ramble, playing on this perception issue.)

Trump is also well aware of the power of surprise as a potential attraction to the audience and disabling of the competition. We're deeply drawn to surprises in general; a 2001 study found that the brain's pleasure centers are activated by unexpected pleasant events, and our attention will understandably be caught by theatrics, even if they're negative. Clinton has commented publicly that the element of surprise is one for which she's attempting to prepare: "which Donald Trump will show up on Monday" has become an open question among the media.

The Psychology Of Clinton's Debating Style

If Trump is the id, the toddler appealing to base instincts, Clinton is the superego, the adult in charge. She's the person who, in contrast to Bernie Sanders' one-liners, tended to give nuanced, delicate answers to questions in the Democratic primary, a tactic that's designed to give voters both information and the definitive sense that she knows what she's talking about. Clinton is an exceptionally well-researched opponent, coaching herself both on the issues and what wild card Trump will throw at her (i.e. nearly anything). But, crucially, debate specialists consulted by Vanity Fair have noted that the mandate is on her to create a perception of "presidential behavior," an area where she may have the edge on notably erratic Trump. Viewers, it seems, watch debates to see who actually looks as if they could take charge, and who flounders and looks unprofessional. Surprise, in this context, may be flattened by the power of a presidential demeanor.

Clinton also has a formidable weapon to use against her opponent: her famous stare. Research has shown that staring is a sign of incredible visual dominance throughout many primate species, from baboons to chimpanzees, and that when faced with a gimlet-eyed glare, we face a significant temptation to crumble and act submissively. It's a hierarchical demonstration of power, one that shows on a deeply primitive level to viewers that Clinton is on top and not prepared to take any nonsense, and one senses she'll use it if Trump steps out of line. Historically, it's been a boon to audiences too. Presidential candidates, Dr. Livie says, "need to project strength, especially in election cycles where foreign policy looms large. A good example of this is John F. Kennedy, who was able to demonstrate not only his charm during the debates but also show his fortitude in dealing with challenges abroad."

Of all of Clinton's arsenal of psychological weaponry, though, the trickiest is likely the perception of warmth. Women in high-level positions, as has been discussed widely in this campaign, walk a tightrope between competence and warmth, and studies indicate that they can usually be seen as powerful leaders or charming people, but not both. Clinton's appeal has largely been targeted towards her experience, but an expert interviewed by Business Insider pointed out that she's also running against a problem with being too warm: "If she's too warm and too nice, [voters] will go, 'Oh, she's too motherly. She doesn't have the stuff to be a leader.'" Clinton will be walking this psychological line exceptionally carefully: not looking too cuddly, but not acting robotically, either.

The battle on Monday will be a clash of psychological weaponry, fought from the psyche upwards, and revealing great contrasts. Which side emerges victorious will depend just as much on their handling of psychological perceptions as on whether they nail a question about Iran.

Images: Bustle