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Why Obama and Romney should clench their left hands tonight

October 22, 2012



Two debates down, and the candidates are tied one-all. Barack Obama’s listless, unengaged and un-fluent performance in round one was matched by Mitt Romney’s over-engaged, slightly wide-eyed and equally un-fluent performance in round 2. What result will tonight’s debate bring?

Strange to say, what the candidates do with their hands could make a crucial difference. Both candidates are highly intelligent men who have rehearsed the arguments they will make tonight thousands upon thousands of times, to the point that they should be as well-rehearsed and automatic as riding a bicycle.

But why then did each of them fail to maintain this high performance  in one of the previous debates? In my earlier blogs, I suggested that Obama was under-motivated and under-engaged in the first, and Romney over-motivated – ‘choking’ in fact – in the second.

Among equally sportsmen, you also find strange departures from highly-rehearsed skills as well, and this can happen for reasons of under-motivation and also of over-motivation. The latter, described as ‘choking’,  may happen because the anxiety triggered by an enormous desire to win combined with a huge fear of failure boosts activity in the language areas of the left hemisphere of the brain.

Linked to this activity is an increased ‘self-focused attention’, and a conscious reflection on ‘how I am doing’. This is what happens when we are learning a new skill, and we rely on the left frontal lobes of the brain a lot at this stage. But once a skill is highly practiced – like Obama and Romney’s vocal cadences, postures and facial expressions should be – then control passes more to the right hemisphere of the brain, where performance is more automatically and unselfconsciously controlled.

 It is very unlikely that Obama will suffer from the unengaged, apparently low motivation problem this time and both candidates are going to be fired-up to win tonight’s crucial contest – they will be highly motivated, so much so in fact that they might be over-motivated and hence choke.

Choking happens when a well-rehearsed skill fails because the person brings the sort of conscious ‘how am I doing’ type of thinking to bear on it under the pressure of enormous stakes. A skill that would normally slip out effortlessly and perfectly mis-fires because the self-focused left-hemisphere processes interfere with the smooth automaticity of the skill.

So what can Obama and Romney do about this? Some German psychologists have shown that in high pressures sports situations where a highly learned skill should normally produce a score, the choking that often happens can be controlled by – wait for it – clenching the left fist! [i]

In three different sports – soccer, tae kwon do, and badminton – they found that skilled performers would often choke when they had to execute a ‘set piece’ in front of a big crowd or video cameras. But they were much less likely to choke if they clenched their left hand before they executed it, compared to if they clenched their right hand.

Beckman and his colleagues argue that closing the left hand over a soft ball ‘primed’ in the right hemisphere the associated fluent, automatic and largely unconscious networks controlling the skill. Activating the right hemisphere like that would also tend to suppress the left hemisphere and therefore tone-down the self-focused thoughts about success and failure.

So watch out tonight to see whether either candidate is quietly clenching a hand. They shouldn’t do it all the time, but rather when they feel the pressure rising and the thoughts like ‘Oh no, I’m losing this’ fill their minds.

Only there is one problem: Barack Obama is left-handed. There haven’t been any studies of left-handers in this situation, so it is not clear what he should do. My advice is that he should use trial and error.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is a right hander and, if we are to believe that the  sporting research of Beckman and his colleagues applies to the practiced non-verbal skills of political debate, then he should definitely have his left hand at the ready. Let’s see what happens, and may the best clencher win.


[i] Beckmann, J., Gröpel, P., & Ehrlenspiel, F. (2012, September 3). Preventing Motor Skill

Failure Through Hemisphere-Specific Priming: Cases From Choking Under Pressure. Journal

of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029852

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