These results have been obtained for U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections, as well as elections in Australia, Finland, France, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. In the case of gubernatorial and Senate elections, for example, the proportion of respondents who judged a candidate to be more competent-looking (than his or her rival) was positively related to that person’s vote share. Further, the predictive power of these facial judgments is largely independent of candidate familiarity, gender, race, incumbency, attractiveness and age. This discovery suggests that voters rely heavily on facial appearance when choosing which candidate to elect, and in particular, on what these cues seem to indicate about leadership qualities.
The recent Science article reported by Antonakis and Dalgas is surprising and novel because it shows that even the judgments of young children can be used to accurately gauge a candidate’s ability to garner votes. In thee study, Swiss adults and children (aged 5 to 13 years) played a game simulating Odysseus’ voyage from Troy to Ithaca, then indicated which person, from a pair of photos, they would choose to captain the boat on the difficult return trip. Unbeknownst to their participants, the photos actually showed pairs of rival candidates from the French parliamentary elections. (The pair shown here is an example.)
Antonakis and Dalgas found that candidates who were judged by most Swiss participants to make better ship captains were more likely to win the actual French elections. Remarkably, the judgments of children and older participants were very similar; Swiss children predicted the French elections just as well as their adult counterparts. These findings are striking because they suggest that the judgments we form about political candidates from their facial appearances develop quite early and remain surprisingly stable, well into adulthood.
Faces are highly potent social stimuli and there are regions in the brain specialized in face processing. We use invariant facial features to track the identity of people over time and dynamic changes in the face such as expressions and eye gaze to understand the meaning of the situation. We also make a variety of personality inferences from faces, although the validity of such inferences is questionable. One explanation for the human proclivity to make such inferences is that these inferences are based on the resemblance of facial features to emotional expressions (for example, angry looking faces are perceived as untrustworthy) and other cues such as neonate features.
Although we would like to assume that voters are too sophisticated and rational to be swayed by superficial cues, the research paints a much less flattering picture. Even when it comes to electing their leaders, it seems, people are heavily influenced by the images that these politicians project (even unwittingly). In particular, politicians with facial features that make them look like they possess strong leadership qualities seem to be at an advantage, at least among some voters. (Appearing like a leader seems to be tied up with perceived competence, and is different from appearing attractive.) Research by Gabriel Lenz and Chappell Lawson at MIT shows that candidate appearances have the strongest impact on voters who possess little political knowledge and spend a lot of time in front of their television screens.