Candidate Performance and Observable Audience Response: Laughter and Applause–Cheering During the First 2016 Clinton–Trump Presidential Debate


Raucous audience applause–cheering, laughter, and even booing by a passionately involved electorate marked the 2016 presidential debates from the start of the primary season. While the presence and intensity of these observable audience responses (OARs) can be expected from partisan primary debates, the amount of not just laughter, but also applause–cheering and booing during the first general election debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was unprecedented. Such norm-violating audience behavior raises questions concerning not just the presence, strength, and timing of these OAR, but also their influence on those watching on television, streaming video, or listening to radio. This report presents findings from three interconnected studies. Study 1 provides a baseline for analysis by systematically coding the studio audience response in terms of utterance type (laughter, applause–cheering, booing, and mixtures), when and how intensely it occurred, and in response to which candidate. Study 2 uses observational analysis of 362 undergraduate students at a large state university in the southern United States who watched the debate on seven different news networks in separate rooms and evaluated the candidates’ performance. Study 2 considered co-occurrence of OAR in the studio audience and in the field study rooms, finding laughter predominated and was more likely to co-occur than other OAR types. When standardized cumulative strength of room OAR was compared, findings suggest co-occurring OAR was stronger than that occurring solely in the field study rooms. Analysis of truncated data allowing for consideration of studio audience OAR intensity found that OAR intensity was not related to OAR type occurring in the field study rooms, but had a small effect on standardized cumulative strength. Study 3 considers the results of a continuous response measure (CRM) dial study in which 34 West Texas community members watched and rated the candidates during the first debate. Findings suggest that applause–cheering significantly influenced liking of the speaking candidate, whereas laughter did not. Further, response to applause–cheering was mediated by party identity, although not for laughter. Conclusions from these studies suggest laughter as being more stereotypic and likely to be mimicked whereas applause–cheering may be more socially contagious.


© 2018 Stewart, Eubanks, Dye, Gong, Bucy, Wicks and Eidelman. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.


Defining Moments, Observed Audience Response (OAR), Applause--Cheering, Booing, Presidential Debates, 2016 Presidential Debates, Intra-Audience Effects


Stewart PA, Eubanks AD, Dye RG, Gong ZH, Bucy EP, Wicks RH and Eidelman S (2018) Candidate Performance and Observable Audience Response: Laughter and Applause–Cheering During the First 2016 Clinton–Trump Presidential Debate. Front. Psychol. 9:1182. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01182