A "Competent" Face Helps Win Elections, Study Suggests
for National Geographic News
|June 9, 2005|
First impressions count, especially in politics. New research suggests
many U.S. voters cast their ballots based on their first impressions of
a political candidate's face.
The study suggests unconsidered responses could be more important to some voters than a rational study of a candidate's merits.
Over the course of five election seasons between 2000 and 2004, researchers from Princeton University showed potential voters photographs of political candidates running in a slew of U.S. congressional races.
The voters were told nothing about the candidates, who were running for seats in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Researchers tested voters' snap judgments about the political candidates. Attractiveness, honesty, and likeability were just some of the traits measured, but the one that stood out for voters was a candidate's competence.
Voters' competence ratings were based solely on the appearance of a candidate's face and predicted the outcomes in U.S. congressional races over five election seasons at a rate of nearly 70 percent.
"We didn't have a firm hypothesis that competence would drive [results]," said Princeton psychologist Alexander Todorov. "It was surprising that the inference was very specific to what people consider important in a politicianand they say that's competence."
Snap decision-making processes like those examined in the study are not necessarily conscious, Todorov said.
"We do a lot of research on how people form impressions of other people, and from our work, as well as work in other labs, we thought that a lot of inferences from facial appearance are pretty automatic," the psychologist said.
"Even if you don't intend to form impressions of a person, it happens quickly," he added.
Researchers excluded any results in which participating voters recognized a candidate or said a candidate even looked familiar.
That part of the exercise revealed what Todorov describes as a "stunning" level of anonymity for both political challengers and sitting Congressmen.
The study appears in the current issue of the research journal Science.
Political analyst Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia's Center for Politics in Charlottesville, said he wasn't terribly surprised to hear the results of the study.
"We're in the age of TV where people judge others based on how they come across on the tube," he said.
"I'd encourage everyone to try the 'face book' test. Get a face book of Congress from 50 years ago and compare it with one of today's face books," he said. "You'll find that Congress has been taken over by people who resemble news anchors and game show hosts."
As the new study suggests, voters' earliest impressions of a candidate can become a lasting filter through which later information is screened. For example, voters who at a later time learn about a candidate's record or remarks may evaluate them against their original, visual first impression of the candidate.
"By and large, if [subsequent] information is ambiguous, chances are that it would be interpreted [positively or negatively] in terms of the original inference," Todorov said.
This effect makes first impressions even harder to overcome.
"I'd be surprised if [the power of first impressions] wasn't even more true among representatives than among senators," said Sabato, the political analyst.
"Senate candidates get far more opportunities to reach people and overcome impressions. House candidates simply don't," he noted. "An average metropolitan newspaper or television station covers a dozen or so House seats, and they can't possibly cover them all."
Candidate photos used in the study were similar-looking "head-shots" of smiling politicians. Media images were not used, because they usually depict a range of emotions or expressions in political candidates that could further alter voters' impressions.
"There's no guarantee that this kind of single picture is representative of the kind of facial impression" candidates would give to voters, Todorov said. "Certainly different exposures could change the perception of a candidate."
Increased emphasis on visual images may further pressure media outlets whose choices of images often draw partisan ire.
"Any of the Letters-to-the-Editor [department staff] will tell you that they get as many letters for bias on photos as they do for bias on their articles," Sabato said.
In fact, both Todorov and Sabato agree that party politics, along with other factors, will remain far more influential with voters than facial first impressions.
"We're in a very polarized environment in this country. So in the end these kind of impressions would only influence truly undecided people," Sabato noted. "But they could be the difference in any competitive race."
If so, Todorov hopes that undecided voters will dig a bit deeper than a candidate's face.
"People are looking for a particular featurecompetenceand that is rational," he said. "But often the way you obtain information or decide who is competent might not be the best possible way of doing so."
What facial quality might suggest a lack of competence? Leslie Zebrowitz, author of Reading Faces: Window to the Soul?, suggests "babyfacedness," characterized by a round face, large eyes, and a small nose and chin.
"What makes a face look competent?" Zebrowitz said. "Research I've done on facial maturity suggests that more facially mature people are judged to be more dominant, physically stronger, and intellectually shrewd." This perception even applies to people who are otherwise seen to be of equal age, sex, and attractiveness, Zebrowitz said.
"Baby-faced people are seen to have childlike traits," added Zebrowitz, who is also a professor of psychology at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Not all childlike traits are viewed negatively. Baby-faced adults, for example, may be perceived has having more integrity and may be viewed as warm and honest. Unfortunately for such individuals, they may also be typecast as submissive, naive, and weak.
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