When we walk into a voting booth and cast our vote, we like to think that we are making a considered decision, based on the issues. After all, a properly functioning democratic system, which gives its citizens the power to choose their leaders and shape critical policies, requires that voters are, for the most part, rational and that society can trust them to make sound judgments.
Perhaps partly for this reason, choosing competent leaders is considered too important to be left to minors, which is why most democracies only allow their adult citizens to vote. You wouldn’t think, therefore, that a group of children would be able to predict the outcome of elections in another country, based only on photos of the candidates.
And yet, this is exactly what a recent study in the journal Science has found. The study, conducted by psychologists John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, shows that Swiss children as young as five years can predict which candidates are more likely to win French parliamentary elections.
This finding contributes to a large and growing body of evidence, coming from many research groups, which shows that voters seem to be heavily influenced by a candidate’s appearance, and in particular the kinds of personality traits that a politician’s face projects. This result is strange considering the political stakes. We may agree that one candidate looks more approachable or intelligent than another, but why do we then allow these superficial impressions to guide our political preferences?
The field of cognitive psychology teaches us that, when faced with a data deluge, the human mind tends to simplify the decision-making process by relying on quick and easy strategies, or what many scientists refer to as “heuristics.” Given the complexity of voting—candidates hold many, subtle positions, and voters are bombarded with information—it should come as no surprise that voters take mental shortcuts to arrive at their final decisions. Although some of these strategies, such as voting along party lines, may be reasonable, others are harder to justify, and thus call into question the very notion of the rational voter.
The Wisdom of Under-Age Crowds
Consider a pair of photos. (Click on "next" above, just under the image at the beginning of the post.) Which of these two men appears more competent to you? If you think that the person on the right looks more competent, then you are in agreement with most respondents. These kinds of impressions from facial appearance can be formed after as little as one tenth of a second exposure to faces. Moreover, they can affect important social outcomes ranging from criminal sentencing to electoral success. The two men pictured were, in fact, the leading candidates in a French parliamentary election and the one deemed more competent-looking actually won the election. Of course, it could be that in this particular race the winner happened to look more competent.A number of recent studies, however, have shown that rapid judgments about the personality traits of political candidates, based only on their facial appearance, predict electoral success well above chance.