While speaking to a crowd in Iowa yesterday, Mitt Romney found himself confronted by hecklers who challenged his claim that the government would need to raise taxes on individuals to support entitlement programs. “Corporations!” the hecklers shouted. Romney, perhaps momentarily forgetting that he was running for president, gave the grating, McCain-esque reply, “Corporations are people, my friend.” This wasn’t the worst possible way Romney could have responded to a heckler (see Richards, Michael). In fact, disregarding the national political fallout for a moment, it might have been the best way to respond in front of the crowd actually present at the event.
That’s because, according to a 1976 study by Richard E. Petty and Timothy C. Brock, speakers faced with hecklers are more persuasive when they offer calm, rational responses. The authors designed an experiment in which students—who were not informed that they were part of a psychology experiment—watched a live speech in which the speaker was either heckled or left alone. When heckled, the speaker ignored the heckling; responded calmly and rationally, addressing the hecklers’ complaints; or else gave a nervous, irrelevant response (such as “Let me finish!”). (In another case, the speaker was interrupted by a timekeeper.) The result: While it doesn’t help the speaker to be heckled, the manner in which the speaker responds has a consistent effect on the audience’s judgment of the speaker’s persuasiveness. A calm response from the speaker can also ease feelings of discomfort in the audience, leading to more positive impressions of the speaker. The authors detect a “substantial impact on overall audience agreement” from both the content and style of the speaker’s response to hecklers. No word on whether it’s wise to publicly embrace corporations in the wake of a massive financial disaster.