On the face of it, voting's superficial

June 15, 2010

Are voters truly sophisticated and rational decision makers? Apparently not. Their choices are heavily influenced by superficial, nonverbal cues, such as politicians' appearance, according to Christopher Olivola from University College London in the UK and Alexander Todorov from Princeton University in the US. According to their findings, voters make judgments about politicians' competence based on their facial appearance and these appearance-based competence judgments reliably predict both voting decisions and election outcomes. The research is published in the June 2010 issue of the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior.

The researchers also discuss the potential impact of these judgments on actual voters and show that appearance is most likely to influence less knowledgeable voters who watch a lot of television, a finding consistent with psychological models of persuasion.

Research to date suggests that rapid judgments about the of political candidates, based solely on their appearance, can predict their electoral success. In other words, voters rely heavily on appearances when choosing which candidate to elect. Since voters need to navigate their way through the flood of information available about candidates in order to make fully informed choices, it is no surprise that they take mental shortcuts to get to their final decision.

After reviewing the published literature on this topic, the authors then introduce a of facial personality traits to identify the particular associated with competence judgments. By manipulating the degree of competence of faces on a screen, they are able to show that facial maturity and physical attractiveness are the two main criteria used by participants to make competence judgments.

Olivola and Todorov conclude: "Getting people to overcome the influence of first impressions will not be an easy task. The speed, automaticity, and implicit nature of appearance-based trait inferences make them particularly hard to correct. Moreover, often people don't even recognize that they are forming judgments about others from their appearances."

So how should the impact of appearances in politics be mitigated? According to the authors: "Controlling exposure to television and other media would be extremely difficult, so educating is likely to be a more realistic strategy."

Explore further: To determine election outcomes, study says snap judgments are sufficient

More information: Olivola CY & Todorov A (2010). Elected in 100 milliseconds: appearance-based trait inferences and voting. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. DOI:10.1007/s10919-009-0082-1

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1 / 5 (2) Jun 15, 2010
OK- so I suppose this means that from now on, potential candidates will be selected based on these characteristics, as opposed to intelligence and principles.

It should come as absolutely no surprise(and, in fact, is old news) that people vote based on these superficial criteria.

After all, are we not constantly bombarded with the message that it is the surface and the style(as opposed to the substance) of a human being which ensures success? In other words: is not to LOOK successful to BE successful?

This constantly reinforced association of character with outward appearance has, as its main objective, the end goal of making us "consumers"(NOT "citizens") more easily manipulated. And that effort appears to be being met with ever greater success.

Witness Sarah "DrillSister" Palin, who- by any objective measure- doesn't know her plush backside from a hole in the ground. While she is pretty savvy politically, she remains inept and uninformed.

not rated yet Jun 16, 2010
In Florida one candidate was defeated because his competitor called him a "practicing heterosexual." The people were appalled and voted accordingly.
not rated yet Jun 16, 2010
Which is why I am against compulsory voting; those not interested but compelled to do so, are even more likely to use the criteria in this article. It is because I heard some voters (in Australia, where voting is compulsory)discussing their vote in this way when I was 16 that I have been strongly against the practice ever since.
2 / 5 (1) Jun 16, 2010

When were intelligence and principles used to pick a candidate in the last 150 years?

Sadly, most people aren't intelligent enough to vote. This article is an example of why Democracy is a bad idea.
not rated yet Jun 16, 2010
Yea. Imagine the crowds at polls if you were required to take a small test about the candidates, prior to being allowed in the voting booth. I bet you'd see a 75% decrease in total votes. (That's a fairly optimistic estimate).
not rated yet Jun 17, 2010
While I agree with the POV of the article and the consensus of comments (oyale I'd love to see a requirement to perform 20 hours of volunteer community related work per year to qualify to vote), I have to take issue with the study (as it is reported).

It seems that some of society's beliefs are so thoroughly indoctrinated, exemption is granted from scientific method and perhaps even consideration.

.... This study has begged the question. It appears to have set out to develop evidence of the hypothesis that voters do not chose well (a view point I share, by the way), find triggers that influence voting, and then label those triggers as inadequate without ever establishing if those triggers are poor indicators.
Perhaps certain facial characteristics and individual variations in what a voter considers 'attractiveness' actually do correlate with someone who will make decisions that the voter would prefer.
Failing to address this puts this study on par with politicians' promises.
not rated yet Jun 17, 2010
Good point Ben. And actually the 20 hrs community service would be great to get some exercise too. (Although the people "earning" their vote would probably be people that exercise anyway. I couldn't picture couch-potato's doing any of that, except every 4 years for a president in rare cases.) Let's call for 20 hrs and a brief (5 minute) exam where you need to score above 75% to be let in. Just basic info that's readily available, to make sure people are paying attention and we don't end up with another South Carolina situation again. Not that Greene won't do a good job, but come on, the dude can't even speak. They showed how his name came first in the box, and just looking at two names that you don't know you tend to pick the earlier one, or the one that sounds prettier. In this case Greene won on both of those points.
not rated yet Jun 19, 2010
Robert Heinlein suggested the ability of solving a simple linear differential equation as being a minimum threshold of local knowledge required by an individual before they can vote.

Something like having a sign "Your education has to be this high to enter ride" in front of the voting booth.
not rated yet Jun 21, 2010
Are voters truly sophisticated and rational decision makers?

Do we really need a study on this?

When you go out shopping, how many of THOSE kinds of people do you see? They are the voters, after all.
Methinks the people doing this study aren't very sophisticated or rational decision makers themselves.

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