Cutting-Edge Leadership

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Can Appearance Alone Predict Who Will Win an Election?

Can children predict a winning candidate from a photo? Yes!

As stunning as it may seem, people who are presented with photographs of candidates for political office can predict the winner at levels far above chance. In a series of studies, participants were presented with photos of two candidates for elected offices throughout the United States. The participants were from different regions of the country, so they did not recognize any of the candidates. Asked to predict the winner of the election, the participants were able to pick not only the winner of the election, but the margin of victory, both at levels significantly above chance.

In a stunning replication of these studies published in the journal Science, John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas asked Swiss children aged 5 to 13 to look at two pictures of candidates for elections in France and asked school children who would they choose to be captain of their boat (the children were playing a computer game that simulated a sea voyage). The students more often picked the winning candidate to be captain.

What does this say about the psychology of elections and our election process in general? First, we make snap judgments based on very limited pieces of information - what social psychologists call "thin slices" - a brief interaction or a photograph. Second, there are cues available in faces that seem to convey the appearance of competence and/or dominance, that we assume suggests leadership potential. Some of this research is reviewed in Malcom Gladwell's book, Blink.

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The results of these studies do not bode well for the quality of our electoral process. Given that the majority of the U.S. voting population cast their votes along strict party lines, elections are decided by the minority of "swing voters," and included in those swing voters are many who base their decisions, like the children and research participants in these studies, on very surface characteristics and quick decisions about how competent the person is from very thin slices of behavior.

If you want to read more about this research, there is a special edition in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior devoted to this line of research.

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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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