Election debates funnier than sitcoms - study

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama spar during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. Photo / AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama spar during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. Photo / AP

Presidential debates during American elections may be funnier than popular sitcoms, Australian research suggests.

Researchers from Murdoch University's Audience Labs used facial coding software to pick up the strength and frequency of positive viewer reactions to candidate remarks during the presidential and vice-presidential debates.

They measured faint activation of the 'smiling muscle' (zygomaticus) and nerve signals in the skin (electrodermal activity) of the participants as they watched the debates.

Audience Labs executive director Professor Duane Varan was surprised in particular by one aspect of the results.

"While shorter in duration, the intensity of the humour in the debates was greater than what we've seen with similar research on popular sitcoms," Varan said.

"I'm not saying you'll see Mitt Romney or Barack Obama on The Big Bang Theory after November 6, but it does indicate the level of tension in the debates that suddenly gets released."

Varan said given the role humour plays in positioning candidates as personable and likable during the election, the new technology could be a valuable resource to strategists and commentators.

While the researchers said the data from the study will take months to analyse, initial results showed who won voters' funny bones.

"The first Obama-Romney debate saw strong humour moments for both Democrats and Republicans, and the foreign policy debate was lacking in humour, with only two funny moments, both among Democrats," Varan said.

"However, the second debate (the Town Hall Debate) definitely went to President Obama, who was funnier to Democrats than Mr Romney was to Republicans, and Paul Ryan trumped Joe Biden in the Vice-Presidential debate even though Vice President Biden benefitted from the strongest pivot with his comment to Ryan: 'Now you're Jack Kennedy?'"

The quip that got the biggest laugh across all four debates occurred during the second presidential debate when President Obama claimed the size of his pension wasn't as large as Romney's.

Varan said work was underway to measure emotions such as surprise, anger and confusion in future.

The research was conducted at the Disney Media and Advertising Lab in Austin, Texas where Varan concurrently serves as chief research officer.

- nzherald.co.nz

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