A Politician’s Physical Appeal Influences Real Electoral Outcomes

by Michael L. Spezio, assistant professor of psychology, Scripps College

Laura Loesch '09 and Michael Spezio

The United States aspires to, and often is taken to represent, an actual “deliberative democracy,” one driven by ideas, character, and outcomes, in which well-informed people choose their elected representatives after careful thought. Democracy in the U.S. also aspires to a “participatory democracy,” to full inclusivity, and full participation of eligible voters.

Anyone reading this, however, recognizes how difficult it is to realize both of these aspirations at the same time. No one wants to, or should, prevent eligible voters from voting. Yet, at the same time, everyone wants, or claims to want, fellow citizens to step into the voting booth only after careful thought and deliberation about the issues and outcomes at stake.

What if a portion of the citizenry does not deliberate— maybe because of time pressures or cultural forces that equalize good political discourse with its entertainment value and that identify substantive political engagement as dry matter for passionless people?

There might be no problem at all, as long as the choices of those deliberatively disengaged but entertained citizens did not affect real-world electoral outcomes. In that case, all could feel relieved because current conditions would allow full participatory democracy and deliberative democracy to exist side by side, with deliberation winning the day.

It has taken the last 20-25 years, however, for political psychologists to build a descriptive case against the happy coexistence of deliberation and participation. Note that no one is suggesting that the U.S. or any other democracy limit participation. The work of political psychologists—as scientists—is descriptive only, and all of us want to uphold the voting rights of all citizens.

Yet, descriptively, a number of us at least are making choices that have nothing to do with issues or positions or outcomes; rather, we are choosing according to a politician’s physical appearance alone. Indeed, Laura Loesch ’09 and I published a scientific paper in the May 2012 issue of the leading journal Political Psychology on just this topic, revealing a rather surprising detail that no one had guessed would be the case.

First, though, let’s back up. How do we know that a significant number of people choose to vote for candidates based only on physical appearance?

In work that dates back to 1987 or so, political psychologists presented 10-minute silent film clips of candidates’ speeches to real voters who knew nothing about those candidates’ views on any issue, or even who those candidates were. Despite there being no sound, with only the physical appearance (e.g., face, hair, clothing, posture, movement, facial expression) to go by, people in the experiments were better than chance at picking the winners and losers of real-world elections. That could only be the case if enough real-world voters also cast their vote on the basis of appearance alone.

Now, fast-forward to the years between 2005 and today, when scientists showed that seeing still images of political candidates allowed naïve experimental participants to identify winners and losers of real-world elections at better than chance, even when those images were presented for only 30-100 milliseconds; that’s less than one-tenth of one second. Scientists have replicated these findings in the U.S., in Mexico, in Canada, in Europe, and throughout Latin America, always within the local political contexts and always with the pictures of local politicians.

So, the influence of a candidate’s physical appearance on the choices of at least a significant proportion of the electorate looks to be largely reliable, cross-cultural, and widespread. In other words, it is likely that if you sat 500 people down and asked them to decide on the 2012 electoral races based on still pictures of the candidates alone, and then went to Las Vegas and used their decisions to bet on the elections, you would make money. Not that anyone really should do this.

What in our psychology links candidate appearance and how well they do in elections? In a paper published in 2008 in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, I asked this kind of question. My research assistants and I were careful to control for ethnicity, gender, and the size of the head and face in the pictures used. This is important, since we already know that there are biases based on gender and ethnic heritage. We used a neuroimaging technique (functional magnetic resonance imaging: fMRI) to investigate how the brain responds to pictures of real candidates who ran against each other in real elections.

Surprisingly, we did not find that the brain consistently responded to positive aspects of a winning candidate’s appearance, such as competence or attractiveness. Instead, the brain most consistently responded to negative aspects of a losing candidate’s appearance. In other words, people who choose by appearance are most consistent in deciding which candidate’s appearance they like least—and then picking the other one. This is called “negative voting,” something political scientists have noted for some time as very influential in real elections. It turns out our brains do this almost without us even needing to consciously weigh the options.

However, one key aspect of that 2008 paper, and of the field in general, did not feel right to rising senior Laura Loesch as she thought about doing an original, highly creative senior capstone project. Laura knew that the prevailing belief was that a candidate’s face alone was all that mattered in linking appearance to electoral success. She thought that this might not be quite right, so we worked to design an experiment that used images that had only the faces of politicians in real elections or that had only the appearance outside the face and any skin surface.

The results were surprising. Along with facial features, Laura discovered that aspects such as a politician’s hair, clothing, posture, and jawline do matter for people who choose based only on appearance. Her exciting work was featured in a special issue of the journal Political Psychology focusing on biological approaches to political science. She continues her great work as a graduate student in the program of Computation and Neural Systems at nearby Caltech.

What might this mean for deliberative democracy? If a politician’s appearance only exerts an influence on voters via the candidate’s face, then we really might be prisoners of our biology. Most of us cannot, at least within the usual limits, control the kind of face we have. However, if aspects of appearance such as hair, clothing, and posture are important as well, then politicians have greater control over how they appear to their given constituency. Those who successfully work to match their constituents’ preferences in appearance might also be successful in building the coalitions and support to get real political work done. There is no guarantee of this, of course, but it seems the better possibility, on the face of it.

Still, as a deliberative democracy, we continue to aspire to voter choice based only on issues, positions, character, and outcomes, none of which have any known determinate connection to physical appearance.

So, for those of us still concerned about the upcoming election and about enhancing a thoughtful electorate, what might we do?

Perhaps we can become more informed about the science, and then inform others, motivating them to move away from easy, but misleading, intuitions about what physical appearance really tells us about a person’s ability to govern democratically and honestly. Indeed, research shows that the more people know about the issues and a candidate’s views about them, the less they rely on unreliable shortcuts like intuitions based on what a politician looks like.

As long as we work hard to know our candidates, and to know our own views and the reasons for them, our aspirations for a thoughtful, deliberative democracy may yet be realized.

Laura Loesch and Michael Spezio, shown in front of Pasadena’s City Hall. Five days after this photo was taken, on August 19, Loesch married Benjamin Harrison in the Wayfarer’s Chapel in Palos Verdes, California. Loesch’s twin, Jennifer, also graduated from Scripps in 2009, in economics and psychology.

Core Influences

Understanding Brain-Behavior RelationshipsLaura Loesch ’09 was a double major in cognitive neuroscience and humanities at Scripps. She entered as a biology, premedicine student, but decided to adopt a second major in humanities after taking Core, the three-semester signature academic program at Scripps. She said that the interdisciplinary school of thought in the Core program introduced her to “a way of approaching the world in which one tries to ignore conventions and disciplinary boundaries and find connections between different fields.”

“In Core, I remember being struck by the notion that anyone could propel a field forward by simply refusing to take the standard set of assumptions for granted,” Loesch wrote in Scripps Magazine in fall 2010.

Her Scripps academic background has served Loesch well. She is breaking new research ground at Caltech, where she is pursuing a PhD in computation and neural systems, working with Scripps psychology professor Michael Spezio, who also has an appointment at Caltech.

As a Scripps undergraduate, Loesch began challenging assumptions into current research about how voters view physical characteristics of political candidates and how they incorporate this information into their voting decisions.


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