Voters: Just as Shallow as We Thought They Were

JFK & Nixon 1960

Ever since John F. Kennedy trounced Richard Nixon in the first-ever televised presidential debate in 1960, we’ve known that appearance plays a very large role in a political race. For a quick briefer, JFK appeared handsome and relaxed at the debate, leading people who watched the debate to claim that he had won; Nixon appeared deathly pale and uncomfortable, but debated well, leading people who listened to the debate on the radio to claim that he’d won. Kennedy won that presidential race, and set the tone for American political races in the future: not only must a candidate sound smart, now they have to look good, too. Every two-to-four years, depending on how high-profile the race is, we get a new way that a candidate tries to appeal to the TV audience. We had Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech, which helped him and his running mate, Dwight Eisenhower, win the election. We had Clinton playing the sax on The Arsenio Hall Show. We had Obama’s 2008 campaign, which showed a youthful, optimistic, globetrotting superhuman.

Now, new studies show that our voting methods may boil down to even less than “looking good,” and that we make our voting decisions within milliseconds. On The New Yorker’s Elements blog, Maria Konnikova talks about these results and the scientist behind them, Alexander Todorov:

“Starting [in the fall of 2003], and through the following spring, Todorov showed pairs of portraits to roughly a thousand people, and asked them to rate the competence of each person. Unbeknownst to the test subjects, they were looking at candidates for the House and Senate in 2000, 2002, and 2004. In study after study, participants’ responses to the question of whether someone looked competent predicted actual election outcomes at a rate much higher than chance—from sixty-six to seventy-three per cent of the time. Even looking at the faces for as little as one second, Todorov found, yielded the exact same result: a snap judgment that generally identified the winners and losers. Todorov concluded that when we make what we think of as well-reasoned voting decisions, we are actually driven in part by our initial, instinctive reactions to candidates.”

In a study of 58 cases, “the only element that outperformed [surface impressions] was a combination of… incumbency status campaign spending,” writes Konnikova. Eventually, Todorov concluded that people without hardcore political beliefs made up their minds about voting for a person not within a matter of seconds, but within 100 milliseconds.

It’s not only American Congressional elections that got impressive results—presidential ones did too, as well as elections in Denmark and Bulgaria. The studies accurately predicted who would win the 2008 Republican and Democratic nominations, months before all of the candidates had officially entered the race. Interestingly, children and adults had similar competency test results (within 5 percent of each other). Both adults and children found rounder, softer faces more trustworthy, while a leaner, more masculine face shouts dominance to both.

Konnikova also talks about two pre-1960 presidents that were elected based on perceived appearance: FDR and Harry Truman:

“Franklin Delano Roosevelt managed to hide the extent of his [paralysis] from the majority of the voting public with a simulated walking technique and a moratorium on photography of him in motion orin a wheelchair. His successor, Harry S. Truman, followed an opposite approach to publicity: for his first election campaign, he completed a train tour that covered some twenty-two thousand miles. At each stop, he would make sure that voters got a good, long look at him. Both Presidents lived before the era of televised debates and the constant presence of the media, but they had intuited the exact same thing: when it came to voter support, physical appearance mattered.”

It’s scary and a little unbelievable that most people base important voting decisions based on mere milliseconds of time. It is undeniable, however, that appearance matters more than we’d like. There’s a reason trim, moderate-looking Mitt Romney won the Republican ticket over someone like Newt Gingrich. It’s partially politics, of course, but if you don’t look presidential you’re at a disadvantage.


“On the Face of It: The Psychology of Electability”, Maria Konnikova, The New Yorker, Elements blog

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