When we elect a president (or other government official) are we getting the best person for the job, or simply the person who looks best? Results from a stunning series of studies suggest that it's the latter.
In these studies, people were presented with photographs 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 also the margin of victory, both at levels significantly above chance.
In an amazing 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 they would choose to be captain of their boat (the children were playing a computer game that simulated a sea voyage). The children more often picked the winning candidate to be captain.
The results of these studies confirm that we often make important judgments based on very limited information, and some of this information occurs outside of our conscious awareness.
We are in the early stages of another U.S presidential election campaign (Yes, like Christmas decorations in department stores, it begins earlier and earlier each time!). Are we about to once again make this important decision based on limited (and perhaps very "shallow") information?
Consider this recent statement from Torin Arachbold, a member of the Austin, Texas Tea Party (as quoted in USA Today), concerning Texas Governor Rick Perry's entry into the presidential candidate field, "Rick Perry is strong. He's the quintessential Texan, he's got great hair, he's a good-looking guy, he stands tall, and he talks directly." Sounds like a beauty contest to me.
These comments, and the results of the 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.
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.