The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The uniquely American appeal of Donald Trump’s favorite insult

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Only in America would calling someone “low energy” – the way Donald Trump branded Jeb Bush last fall – do so much damage to a political campaign.

Bush’s campaign, which ended on Saturday, faced a number of obstacles. One was Trump’s insult. While the charge of being “low energy” initially might have seemed silly, it clung to Bush, highlighting the disconnect between his slightly stiff, old-school demeanor and the intense anger of the Republican base.

In the U.S., candidates are penalized for not having big-enough smiles, firm-enough handshakes, and rousing commentary – as are CEOs, public speakers and job-seekers of all kinds. The U.S. has become “a nation of extroverts” that rewards enthusiasm, friendliness and charm, as Susan Cain, the author of a book about introversion, writes.

But not every country thinks the same way. A new study by researchers at Stanford and other universities suggests that Western cultures value excitement and enthusiasm more than some Eastern ones, and that these values carry over into the behavior of political leaders in those countries.

Social scientists believe that culture is what teaches people to hold certain values, like beliefs in individual freedoms, religion or filial piety. Jeanne Tsai, a psychologist at Stanford and the lead author of the study, argues that culture also teaches people what emotions to value. These values are subtly reflected in the products, practices and institutions that surround us – including children’s story books, song lyrics, magazine ads, pornography, and greeting cards – even politicians’ faces.

For all cultures, how people say they want to feel is much more positive than how they actually do feel, the researchers say. But the emotions that people want to feel also differ from place to place. Tsai and her colleagues call the emotions that people see as the most desirable “ideal affect,” distinguishing them from the emotions that people actually feel, called “actual affect.”

The researchers carried out several experiments to zero in on what kind of emotions different cultures value most.

First, they compared official, posed photographs of American and Chinese government leaders, Fortune 500 company executives and presidents of high-ranking universities – all high-status individuals who are often seen as embodying the ideals of a certain cultures. They had researchers review and code the photos based on how excited or calm the expression was, and also used computerized facial coding programs to do the same process.

They found that leaders in the U.S. were five times more likely to have any type of smile – excited or calm – than leaders in China, and 6.5 times more likely to have an excited smile, as the graph below shows. There weren’t any cultural differences in terms of calm smiles.

In a second experiment, the researchers looked at winning and losing political candidates in Taiwan and the U.S. to see whether those results had anything to do with a person’s rank or professional success (they could not do the same study in China, since Chinese leaders aren’t elected). They also looked at presidents and CEOs of more highly and lowly ranked universities and companies in China and the U.S.

Here again, they found that U.S. leaders had more big toothy smiles than Taiwanese and Chinese leaders did, and that the smiles didn’t vary by election outcome or rank. American leaders bore more excited smiles than Chinese or Taiwanese leaders did, regardless of their occupation, their position in the company or organization, and whether the politician won or lost when they ran for office.

To figure out whether these differences really had to do with “ideal affect,” they surveyed people in 10 different countries about what emotions they would most like to feel – excited, euphoric, content, sad, peaceful, etc. -- and how often they actually had those feeling. Finally, they compared these assessments with photographs of that country’s leaders.

In countries where students valued excitement, elation and enthusiasm, like the U.S., leaders tended to take photographs with dazzling smiles. In countries where students valued calmness, peacefulness and other quieter emotions, the leaders appeared much more serene -- as the graphs below show. The graph on the left shows a positive correlation between leader photos with excited smiles and people describing "high-arousal positive states" -- "enthusiastic," "excited," "elated," "euphoric," -- while the graph on the right shows a correlation between calm smiles and people valuing "low-arousal positive states" -- "peaceful," "calm," "relaxed," "serene."

“Interestingly, the researchers found people's ideas about the emotions they wanted to feel -- "ideal affect" -- were significantly correlated with the kind of smiles they saw in photographs, but that people's actual emotions -- "actual affect" were not.” In other words, the emotions captured in politicians’ expressions, children’s story books, popular song lyrics and other places may be more of a reflection of the emotions we want to feel than the emotions we actually do feel.

The researchers say it’s not clear whether these politicians are making a conscious or an unconscious decision to crack a toothy smile or take on an enthusiastic demeanor. But the study suggests that leaders do present themselves in a way that syncs with their culture’s values – or, like Jeb Bush, they may suffer the consequences.

See also:

What people around the world mean when they say they’re happy

How to change someone’s mind, according to science

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