The Surprising Effect of Facial Appearance on Political Decision-Making

The intrigue and appeal of these findings are further enhanced by the researchers’ discovery that judgment speed mattered. They found that immediate, first impressions of competence, made after seeing an image for only 100 milliseconds, weresuperior to deliberative judgments in anticipating the winner of an election (Ballew & Todorov, 2007). This finding seems counterintuitive: how could gut feelings outperform reflective thinking? At the same time, it fits well with one research study focused not on candidate preferences, but on strawberry jam. Wilson and Schooler (1991) asked participants to taste and rate the quality of different jams, and then tested the “accuracy” of these ratings by comparing them with evaluations offered by trained tasting experts. Results showed that when participants were instructed to reflect on why they liked or disliked the jams, they produced ratings that did not corresponded with the experts’ ratings as well as those who simply rated the jams without reflection.
What is it about judging unfamiliar candidates and unfamiliar jams that champions intuition over careful reflection? In both cases, our preferences are formed outside of our awareness. In attempting to justify a first impression that perhaps came to us through nonverbal channels, we consciously construct plausible explanations. For example, if asked to analyze why we dislike a strawberry jam, we think and generate rational explanations: because of its thickness, tartness, or sweetness. As we think about these new reasons, they affect how we feel about the jam, ultimately changing our attitude (Wilson & Schooler, 1991). When it comes to candidates’ faces, forming reasons for our competence judgments shifts our initial impressions without adding real information, making them less reliable predictors of election outcomes.

It is alluring to think that a competent-looking face alone can win an election, but money, political backing, and competent behavior are still critical to a candidate’s campaign success. At the same time, it is possible that political parties choose to back competent-looking people and organizations might preferentially donate money to competent-looking candidates. What we do know is that the effect of a candidate’s nonverbal information is often overlooked, and some voters rely on it more than others.

Are you well-versed in politics, or is your political knowledge rather superficial? Many people agree with the latter description. For them, politics is largely remote: the nature of economic and social problems, the difference between political parties, and the policies that candidates propose are abstract and overwhelming. In order to circumvent the challenge of making a reason-based decision and to still vote, citizens turn to information they do understand. Instead of casting their ballot for the best candidate, they cast their ballots for the best person (Bishin, Stevens & Wilson, 2006). This strategy is essentially a cognitive heuristic, allowing for the formation of a candidate preference efficiently and with little real effort. Heuristics are mental short-cuts that come in handy when we are faced with complex decisions. They can be misguiding, but heuristics certainly conserve a person’s time and mental energy. For voters, an incredibly time-intensive task becomes simple when they can base their ballot decisions on persons, not politics. Because character is, for a great part, inferred from appearance, Lau and Redlawsk (2001) may be on to something when they suggest candidate appearance is one of the most important political heuristics, relied upon widely by uninformed voters.

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