Video: Blinking expert predicts president based on eye action during debates

Elana Zak

At this point in the presidential campaign, Joseph Tecce is annoyed. Republican candidate John McCain is blinking too much.

“What a shame. It’s not close. … McCain’s way up in blinking,” Tecce said while sitting in his basement laboratory at Boston College. He noted that Democrat Barack Obama had 67 blinks per minute during the Sept. 26 debate while McCain has 112 bpm. “I’m annoyed. I wanted [the race] to be a cliffhanger. Otherwise, who cares about my [research]?”

Tecce, a Wellesley resident and a psychology professor at Boston College, is a world-renowned expert on presidential candidates’ blinking. Since the 1988 race between former President George H.W. Bush and Gov. Michael Dukakis, Tecce has been able to accurately predict who will be the next president based on who blinked faster during the presidential debates.

Right now, Tecce is in prime form, waiting to fully analyze the three presidential and one vice presidential debates in order to predict who will be this country’s next president.

“When people blink fast, they’re usually a little bit under stress, or a lot under stress. When people blink slowly, they’re more relaxed,” he said. “Up until now I’ve been able to predict the winner of the presidential elections pretty much on eye blink rate.”

Blinking and debates

Tecce will not try to predict which candidate will win until after the third debate. He thinks both campaigns have his research on blinking rates during debates, yet McCain continued to blink at a very high rate during both the primaries and the first debate. During the primaries McCain’s rate of blinking was around 114 bpm, according to Tecce’s numbers.

“I feel good that both camps now have my observations and I’ve done my impartial, unprejudiced contribution to the campaign. Each one knows they have a weakness, one on blinking and one [on] gaze aversion,” he said, adding that colleagues familiar with his research have talked to both campaigns. “McCain has a shot at it because he had my material. … He has no one to blame but himself. … I wish McCain had done his work.”

Candidates can learn to blink slower, said Tecce; it just takes a lot of practice. Yet no matter how much a candidate practices blinking at a normal rate, which Tecce’s research shows is between 30 to 50 bpm, it is hard to keep the rates down, especially during a debate. Candidates get engrossed in what is being said and forget to control their blinking.

Although Tecce does not feel the vice presidential debate will have a large influence on the overall outcome of the presidential election, he did tape it and analyze both Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. Both were in or near the normal range of blinks, although Palin was slightly higher at 52 bpm, while Biden was 36 bpm. Tecce attributed Palin’s higher number to it being her first debate. He did praise the governor of Alaska for looking directly at the camera and not looking down too much.

“See how easy it is to count her blinks?” he said while watching the debate on a tape, counting out loud each of her blinks. “She’s right there, nice and clear.”

The new kid on the block: Gaze aversion

There’s a “new kid on the block,” however, when it comes to the debates and that’s factoring in how often candidates look down, Tecce said.

“Now, however, we have Obama particularly looking down a lot … and now looking down — what I call gaze aversion — is a new measure that has to go along with blink frequency,” he said. “So now we have dual criteria, two measures: How fast people blink and how much they look down.”

Candidates used to only look down five to six times per minute, Tecce said, but now it has increased to more than 10 times per minute. During the presidential debate, Obama looked down 12 times with McCain clocking in at 11 times. The vice presidential candidates also fell prey to gazing down during their debate: Biden looked down nine times, Palin three.

Looking down influences the voter-viewer because not being able to see someone’s face makes you trust them less, Tecce said. Comparing Biden and Palin, Tecce said the Democrat has a “sustained gaze aversion,” meaning he looks down for a longer time period than Palin.

“When [Biden] and Obama look down, they stay down, they stay down for quite a while, like a second and a half to two seconds,” he said while watching a tape of the vice presidential debate, commenting whenever Biden looked down or had jerky head movements. “It’s interesting. The two Democratic candidates both have quick head movements and look down a lot. The two Republican candidates blink faster, but they don’t look down as much. So we have here a balancing act. Two criteria, one of which favors one group, and one of which favors the other group.”

After the third debate

Based solely on the first presidential debate, Tecce said he would pick Obama as the winner. Yet he is adamant that he must review all three debates before making a prediction on who will win the race. He doesn’t watch the debates live, instead opting to tape them. He then watches the tapes with a stopwatch and a pad of paper, turning the sound down so he can concentrate on counting blinks. This blinking expert then goes back and watches the debate again, in order to count how many times the candidates look down.

“I think I need three debates. … The format for the three presidential debates has been laid out rigorously,” he said, adding he got burned during the primaries because Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton, both slow blinkers, didn’t make the cut. “But I’m going to guess it still may be difficult at the end of the third debate (Wednesday night) because blink rate is going to favor Obama, and I’m thinking that maybe gaze aversion, if [Obama] goes back to his old tricks, he’s going to be looking down a lot more, and therefore gaze aversion may favor McCain. If that happened, I would go with blink rate on balance.”

The blinking game

Here’s the blinking and gaze aversion numbers for the presidential and vice presidential candidates after each group has had one debate, according to Joseph Tecce’s numbers.

Blinking (per minute)

Barack Obama: 60

John McCain: 112

Joe Biden: 36

Sarah Palin: 52

Gaze Aversion (per minute)

Barack Obama: 12

John McCain: 11

Joe Biden: 9

Sarah Palin 3

Wellesley Townsman