She could have campaigned for months, but a woman's success at the ballot box may have nothing to do with her policies, and something to do with her looks.
A new study from Dartmouth College researchers found that people could predict whether a female politician would win or lose an election within just 380 milliseconds of seeing a photo of her face. Turns out, how feminine women's facial features are says a lot about their electoral success.
Using software that tracks computer mouse movements, researchers showed nearly 300 participants photos of politicians' faces—the winners and runners-up in U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections between 1998 and 2010. They then asked the participants to characterize those faces as male or female, and tracked how fast they made their decision. When participants saw a photo of a woman with relatively masculine features, they tended to hesitate before characterizing her as "female." Photos of women with feminine features met with less uncertainty.
It's this pause, this gut reaction, that became the predictive factor of electoral success. The more participants were drawn to select the male response when categorizing the gender of a female politician's face, the researchers found, the less likely she was to win her election.
"Individuals are highly sensitive to gendered facial cues, and these cues are processed within only milliseconds after seeing another's face," says Jon Freeman, the study's senior author and developer of the mouse-tracking software. "It's important to examine how facial cues could inadvertently affect female politicians' electoral success, especially given the possibility of a female U.S. president in the near future and the rising number of women in Congress."
Here's how those snap decisions look, courtesy of Dartmouth:
Dartmouth Gender Study
The researchers suspect that these findings are moderated by voters' values. In elections in conservative states, which are more likely to adhere to traditional gender roles, female candidates with feminine facial features won more often than those with masculine features.
"Because masculinity is stereotypically associated with leadership in the U.S., conservatives' preference for traditional gender roles and low tolerance for uncertainty may require women's leadership aspirations to be tempered by strong associations with femininity, particularly in their appearance," says study author Eric Hehman.
Past research has shown that male politicians' attractiveness contributes to perception of their competence and leadership ability. This current research isn't about whether voters find women politicians attractive or capable. Rather, it's about how their brains are hardwired to respond to gender stereotypes. That pause in the experiment was what influenced whether women won or lost their elections.
In other words, how our brains subconsciously process human faces—and their biological and social gender-specific attributes—can affect our voting behavior more than how good-looking we consciously think they are.