In Politics, Appearance DOES Matter

Sure it’s shallow and superficial, but a new study confirms what political image-makers have been trading on for years: Looks matter in a candidate.

Research published Friday in the journal Science shows that congressional candidates whose facial appearance made them seem “competent” were more likely to win elections.

“Our findings 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,” wrote Alexander Todorov, a psychologist now at New York University who was an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton when the research was done.

Todorov and colleagues showed _ for one second to people who volunteered for the study_ matched black-and-white photos of the winners and runners-up of Senate and House races in 2000, 2002 and 2004. Participants were asked to evaluate each candidate’s image for competence, as well as other factors such as attractiveness, likeability and trustworthiness.

Ratings of competence, but not the other factors, reliably predicted which candidate actually won the contest about 70 percent of the time _ 71.6 percent of Senate races, 66.8 percent of House matchups.

Not only did the competence ratings predict the winner, they also closely paralleled the margin of victory for most candidates.

The quick exposure to the images is supposed to elicit a “gut” response type of choice _ fast, unreflective and effortless _ as opposed to slower, more deliberate consideration of character and issues that seemingly would be more relevant in guiding the selection of a candidate, the researchers said.

While “actual voting decisions are certainly based on multiple sources of information other than inferences from facial expressions,” Todorov said, the subsequent details collected about candidates may not, in many people, be sufficient to change first impressions.

In an article on the study, also published in Science, Leslie Zebrowitz, a psychologist at Brandeis University, and Joann Montepare, a professor of marketing communication at Emerson College, argue that the outcomes in the political races were likely the result of differences in opponents’ “babyfacedness.”

Zebrowitz, a longtime researcher in the field of facial expressions, said even though the new study “doesn’t tell us exactly what competence is _ there are many kinds, including physical strength, social dominance and intellectual shrewdness _ babyfaced people are perceived as lacking in all these qualities.”

She said both babies and babyfaced adults, regardless of sex or ethnic group, share such features as a round face, large eyes, small nose, high forehead and a small chin. While adults with those features may be perceived as less competent or experienced, those with more mature facial features are viewed as having those leadership qualities.

In one celebrated study some years ago, images of Presidents Reagan and Kennedy were altered to increase their babyfacedness, then shown to volunteers who decreased their ratings for dominance, strength and cunning significantly against ratings given by other subjects to the original photos.

In fact, studies by Zebrowitz and others have shown that babyfaced men are actually more intelligent, better educated, more assertive and apt to win more military medals than their mature-looking colleagues.

“The data we have suggest that we are not necessarily electing better leaders _ people who are actually more competent _ though we are electing people who look the part,” Zebrowitz said.

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(Contact Lee Bowman at BowmanL(at)