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Interpreting President Barack Obama's Facial Displays of Emotion: Revisiting the Dartmouth Group



Charismatic presidents like John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and now Barack Obama have been able to overcome stereotype-based barriers to political power by connecting emotionally with viewers, particularly through their nonverbal skills. In this study we focus on the facial displays of emotion by President Obama and how participants interpret them. This study builds upon the pioneering research of the Dartmouth Group concerning response to displays of happiness-reassurance by political leaders. It will first replicate and extend upon existing research by using Ekman and Friesen's Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to characterize facial displays by President Obama, specifically three neutral displays and three different types of smiles. Second, this study replicates research carried out over two decades ago concerning individual differences in sex, ethnicity, and age cohort on response to political candidates culturally defined as Black. Video focusing on the head and torso were FACS coded and presented in a web-based experiment to 79 participants working at a southern institution of higher education. The participants identified the emotions felt by President Obama on a scale ranging from “not at all” to “extremely” focusing on the basic emotion terms of: “Happy” and “Playful” (happiness-reassurance) and “Angry” and “Disgusted” (anger-threat). Findings suggest participants differentiate between subtle facial-display differences and that there are differences based upon ethnicity and support for President Obama when they interpret his facial displays of emotion.