It Takes Just 380 Milliseconds to Judge a Female Politician by Her Looks

A feminine face matters at the polls, new research has found.

National Journal
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Marina Koren
May 15, 2014, 10:06 a.m.

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:

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.