The Surprising Effect of Facial Appearance on Political Decision-Making

This research makes a significant contribution to our understanding of how undecided voters come to make their decisions. Not only does it identify facial similarity as influencing voter judgment, but it highlights the often-overlooked role of visual cues in shaping our preferences. Bailenson and colleagues’ (in press) work also gives us a basis for theorizing about campaign strategies for small races, where candidates are not well-know, or primary elections, where candidates’ standings on issues tend to be quite similar. Advertisements promoting an average-looking candidate, who would presumably resemble many people, could give him an advantage over a rival who has more distinctive features. Research has shown that average-looking people also tend to be perceived as more attractive (Langlois & Roggman, 1990) and that attractive candidates tend to be preferred (Budesheim & DePaola, 1994). While Bailenson and his team (in press) controlled for attractiveness, the two forces of similarity and attractiveness together could give an unknown candidate an edge.

Candidates may also win undecided voters simply by looking “presidential” or “gubernatorial.” Take for example Sérgio Cabral Filho, current Governor of Rio de Jeneiro, Brazil; were you to look at his photo, you would see a face that suggests competence, leadership, and strength, qualities we seek in a governor. From his picture, you might automatically assume certain characteristics of Sérgio The Person, and, hence, Sérgio The Governor, based only on his appearance. These personality inferences, a form of stereotyping, may unwittingly affect your voting decision, especially if you are not familiar with Governor Cabral Filho and do not know his political, social, or economic policies.

Ballew and Todorov (2007) decided to figure out the relation between governors’ electability and “looking competent.” Their previous research had established that people value competence in their elected officials above all other traits (Todorov, Mandisodza, Goren, & Hall, 2005). This earlier work also revealed that competence judgments were surprisingly good at predicting senate race election outcomes. Turning to governors’ races, Ballew and Todorov (2007) first verified that we do indeed make personality judgments from quick glances at people’s faces, supporting previous research (Willis & Todorov, 2006). They then demonstrated that rapid competence judgments, based only on pictures of candidates’ faces, could predict gubernatorial election results. In other words, participants’ quick competence ratings, made after seeing candidates’ pictures for only 100 milliseconds, identified the winner at a rate significantly better than chance. These participants did not know the candidates, nor did they have access to information about their policies or track-records. All they saw was his or her face. Incredibly, these rapid inferences of competence were also positively associated with the proportion of actual votes received by the candidates; in other words, the more competence attributed to a candidate from a quick glance at his photo, the higher proportion of votes he tended to receive in the actual election.

article author(s)

article keywords