Enormous sums of money have been spent on polls, ads, campaigns, and coverage of this year’s dead-even White House contest. There’s even research that tracks and interprets the candidates’ eye blinks. But what if voter decisions boil down to a quick reaction to the way somebody looks?
Imagine an experiment in which a pair of photos is shown to a group of children who are presumably not versed in politics. One is of Barack Obama’s face. The other is of Mitt Romney’s. After they’ve seen the pictures, the children are asked a simple question: “Who would you rather be the captain of your ship?”
Psychological research suggests that such a question might be the most relevant one of all. The 2008 experiment was performed by researchers in Switzerland, but the candidates were French and the kids were Swiss—making them even less aware of the politicians. As a group, the children guessed the winners of real elections with 71 percent accuracy. They even predicted Obama would win the 2008 election.
Although you wouldn’t think it, just by looking at someone’s face, we immediately know a lot about them. From bone structure, we know a person’s gender. From their expression, we know their mood. We’re decent guessers of a person’s age. But these are the easy ones. Our ability to read faces goes much deeper than these surface features. Turns out, faces even reveal what their owners believe.
The children in the study aren’t outliers. A landmark 2005 study by Alexander Todorov, published in the journal Science, found that people were able to predict the outcomes of the 2004 U.S. Senate and House elections just by looking at faces of candidates for 1 second. “This happens without any prior knowledge of the politician’s policies, without any exposure to campaign advertising, and without information about the politician’s experience,” said Kerri Johnson, a research psychologist at the University of California (Los Angeles).
What is at play is a perception of competence. In the Todorov study, the people with faces deemed more competent were more likely to get elected. And this notion of competence is conveyed, within a second, by the structures of the face. What does a competent face look like? It’s largely masculine, with a square jaw and large eyes. Baby-faced politicians, be wary. The video below takes a competence-neutral face, morphs it into a very competent face, and then to a very incompetent-looking one.
What Todorov’s research shows is that voters’ instant impression of candidates can persist into the polling booths. The results of the study, he wrote, “have challenging implications for the rationality of voting preferences, adding to other findings that consequential decisions can be more ‘shallow’ than we would like to believe.”
What’s going on here is simple: It’s stereotyping. Collectively, we have an understanding of what our leaders should look like. In turn, those stereotypes become realized when we vote. And our ability to make snap judgments of politicians goes even deeper than picking winners and losers. At a subconscious level, we even can spot a partisan in a crowd.
“We have a lot of gut feelings, and my research interest is in understanding what those gut feelings are and where they come from,” says Nicholas Rule, a psychologist at the University of Toronto. In 2009, he published an experiment that showed that gut feelings about an individual’s politics carry some truth. He showed study participants pictures of Senate candidates’ faces and asked them a simple question: Is this a Republican or a Democrat?
To a degree greater than chance, the participants guessed the right answer. When he had his participants rate the political leanings of their nonpolitician peers, the effect was even stronger. “There’s tons of error,” Rule says. “We’re looking at 60 percent accuracy at best. The reason that is statistically significant is because it is so reliable.”
Rule says Republican faces tend to look more dominant than Democratic ones. “If we were to translate that into features, for example, it would be cues to dominance, which would be angularity of facial features, jaw size, the heaviness of the brow ridge. Masculinity in a way.” On the other hand, Democrats tend to have "warmer" faces.
UCLA’s Johnson did further research into facial recognition of party ID, in particular women in elected office. She asked participants to judge whether the representatives were Democrats or Republicans, by face alone. (Her participants were college students with a near-zero chance of recognizing the 434 House members of the 111th Congress.) Her findings replicated Rule’s—the students matched politicians to party to a degree greater than chance. The participants were 98 percent more likely to guess correctly when the politician was a highly feminine Republican woman—that is, when the politician fit a stereotype.
Of course, choosing a candidate is more complicated than just looking at a face. But both Johnson and Rule say these stereotypes do play a role in elections, especially with casual voters. “Where we think this has the biggest impacts is on the margins when people are not either well-informed or they’re not engaged in the political process,” Johnson says.
The authors of the study of the Swiss children put it in starker terms: “Unfortunately, voters are anchored in first impressions and do not appropriately correct initial inferences; additional information on the candidates does not change choices by much.”