Interviewing? Be careful where you sit and the camera angle

Does it really matter, when you’re doing an interview either in person or on camera, where you sit? It turns out, it does, and rather drastically.

What’s-focal-is-presumed-causal phenomenon

In Robert Cialdini’s newest book Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade he discusses the what’s-focal-is-presumed-causal phenomenon. Essentially, if a camera or third person is viewing a conversation and they can only see one of the faces in the conversation, they view the person whose face they can see more critically and blame them more.

As Cialdini explains:

As we know from the experiments of [Shelley Taylor, a social psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA)], a camera angle arranged to record the face of one discussant over the shoulder of another biases that critical judgment toward the more visually salient of the two. We also know now— from the more recent experiments of social psychologist Daniel Lassiter— that such a camera angle aimed at a suspect during an interrogation leads observers of the recording to assign the suspect greater responsibility for a confession (and greater guilt). Moreover, as was the case when Taylor and her coworkers tried it, [social psychologist Daniel Lassiter] and his coworkers found this outcome to be stubbornly persistent. In their studies, it surfaced regardless of whether the observers were men or women, college students or jury-eligible adults in their forties and fifties, exposed to the recording once or twice, intellectually deep or shallow, and previously informed or not about the potentially biasing impact of the camera angle. Perhaps most disturbingly, the identical pattern appeared whether the watchers were ordinary citizens, law enforcement personnel, or criminal court judges.

Cialdini, Robert (2016-09-06). Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade (p. 63-64). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

How can you fix this?

Ask for the camera to be positioned so that it equally shows your face and the interviewer’s face. In person-to-person situations, make sure you’re positioned so that the third party viewers can see everyone’s face equally.

Cialidini notes:

Nothing could change the camera angle’s prejudicial impact— except changing the camera angle itself. The bias disappeared when the recording showed the interrogation and confession from the side, so that the suspect and questioner were equally focal.

Cialdini, Robert (2016-09-06). Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade (p.63- 64). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Of course, if you wanted to heavily turn the tables in your advantage, you would ask to position so that the third party viewers could see only the interviewer’s face, but there are some ethical implications of doing so and, even if that weren’t the case, I doubt you’d be able to convince someone to do it, since you are the subject of the interview.

My suggestion would be to make equal face angles a stipulation of you agreeing to be interviewed. This might be a challenge, especially at the national media level because multiple camera angles keep the interview interesting to the viewers, but it’s still worth working with your PR team to balance the situation.

Go into situations looking for the focal point

Another way of addressing the situation is to predict the focal points ahead of time or notice them right away given the scenario to be able to fix them. This will take some consideration as you approach various situations, and it will be well worth your time to do so. In a non-planned situation, I recommend walking into a situation and immediately assessing the layout, where the cameras are and where everyone is sitting. If you see bad angles, try to fix it from the get-go, before people start sitting down. Once they’ve chosen a seat or a position, they are less likely to move from it.

However, if they have already chosen a position, you could still tactfully try to remedy the situation. For example, if a third party is watching your job interview, you could say something like “Why don’t you join us at the table?” and helpfully put a chair where they can see both faces equally. Or, for a public forum, you could say “How about we arrange these chairs so that it’s more of a conversation?” and set them up so the audience can see both you and your interviewer equally.

Beyond the media interview

As the examples above show, there are also other times when the what’s-focal-is-presumed-causal phenomenon could have an impact on the outcome of your interviews and conversations, including:

  • Public forum discussions
  • Interviews by the police
  • Conflicts being resolved with a mediator
  • Contentious meetings
  • Job interviews

As you move throughout your days, take notice of face and camera angles. This will get you into the habit of looking for this prior to a critical situation.

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