At the outset of the third presidential debate, Hillary Clinton came on stage looking poised and game ready.
Donald Trump emerged looking slightly more reserved than usual, at times it even looked like his eyes were half-closed and I wondered if he’d maybe had one too many cocktails on the Las Vegas Strip the night before.
But something about Hillary’s behaviour was weird.
It goes without saying that plenty about Trump’s behaviour is weird, but we know that Trump is not like other candidates. For many of his supporters, that’s a huge part of his appeal.
Clinton spent the third debate nodding and smiling
Nodding suggests agreement, and smiling is our universal sign that we are happy, or content.
But Hillary Clinton wasn’t agreeing with Donald Trump’s arguments, and she certainly didn’t seem happy.
So why was she smiling?
Some reports claimed that Clinton was encouraged by her team to smile in earlier debates.
It could make her seem kinder and warmer beside an opponent who has been labeled a narcissist and a bully. It’s supposed to be endearing. But it’s not coming across that way.
There are two reasons why
The first is that the timing of Clinton’s emotional expressions are not congruent with the content of the discussion. They’re not what we would expect.
Trump accused her of being upset and angry, and moderator Chris Wallace asked her to confirm if she was extremely upset. Clinton smiled.
Trump said Putin had outsmarted her. Clinton smiled.
Trump talked about Islamic State and Syria. Clinton smiled.
But these are not laughing matters.
There was one point in the debate when Hillary claimed: “I am happy, in fact I am thrilled to talk about the Clinton Foundation!” She could have smiled then, but she didn’t. She yelled it.
We’ve all done this; we’ve all smiled inappropriately.
Think of a time when you’ve tripped over and, to save face, you laughed at yourself, because if you’re laughing at yourself then others can only laugh with you, not at you.
We use smiles or laughter to defend against shame and embarrassment, and it’s also one of our body’s natural ways to induce a sense of relaxation and restore calm when under threat.
The second reason – and the real problem: Clinton’s smile isn’t real
A real smile, known as a ‘Duchenne smile’, involves contraction of groups of facial muscles around the mouth and the eyes. But when we fake a smile, we only use the muscles around the mouth. That’s what Hillary’s doing.
It might seem like a subtle difference, but as amateur detectives most of us are pretty good at interpreting people’s emotions from their facial expressions. And we’re highly sensitive to cues that suggest inconsistency.
I love Hillary Clinton's smile. Its as genuine as it is fake.
— Chiona (@I_AM_CH1ONA) October 20, 2016
It’s part of the basic building blocks of our emotional intelligence, and it enables us to distinguish true emotion from fake emotion. It tells us who we can trust.
In these debates it’s particularly problematic because Clinton is fighting against a campaign that is based upon assertions that she is dishonest and untrustworthy.
But Trump calls her a liar, and she smiles.
When we notice the discrepancy between what she’s showing and how she must really be feeling, it actually serves to reinforce the idea that she is, in fact, disingenuous.
Why it matters for Hillary Clinton’s campaign
Before I get accused of being anti-Hillary, let me highlight that it’s so easy to point out Donald Trump’s inconsistencies that it’s not even fun.
He claimed that “nobody has more respect for women than I do, nobody”, as he continued to interrupt and speak over Clinton, even calling her a ‘nasty woman’ at one point.
Not the finest display of congruency there.
But Trump’s debate style isn’t based on emotion.
And Clinton’s largely is.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to trust. Trust is at the core of strong relationships, efficient communities, and thriving nations, and a leader, above everything else, must have the trust of the people they represent.
Hillary Clinton has 20 days left to prove that she’s trustworthy, if she’s going to secure the presidency.
Dr Melissa Weinberg is a research consultant and registered psychologist, specialising in wellbeing and performance psychology. She is a TEDx speaker and an Honorary Fellow of Deakin University.