The 2012 US presidential election is about to enter the final month of a long campaign season. With that in mind, I thought it timely to briefly discuss how people decide whom to vote for. Of course, many individuals vote along ideological grounds. The ensuing discussion does not apply to such folks. Rather, I restrict my focus on members of the electorate who genuinely do not hold any a priori bias toward either remaining candidates. Do such individuals weigh all of the relevant information on the candidates prior to arriving at a final “rational” and informed choice that maximizes their utility (to use the jargon of classical economics)? The answer is an emphatic no! Interested readers can check out my 2003 chapter titled “Evolution and Political Marketing” in the book Human Nature and Public Policy: An Evolutionary Approach edited by the biopoliticians Albert Somit and Steven A. Peterson. In the article, I applied evolutionary psychology in explaining the types of decision strategies and informational cues that voters use in arriving at a final choice.
To summarize the key gist of my argument, I proposed that people are driven by peripheral cues that are largely irrelevant to actual matters of policy. The height of competing candidates is perhaps the most influential of all such cues. In the great majority of presidential elections over the past one hundred years or so, the taller candidate has won. I have written extensively about height on my blog (see here, here, and here). For an interesting evolutionary lens on this issue, readers might wish to visit the writings of my fellow PT blogger Dr. Gregg Murray (see for example here). The facial features of prospective (male) leaders constitute another important morphological feature (although Obama’s jaw line is less than ideal). See my earlier article here wherein I discuss facial
features of military leaders. Sorry Ron Paul…that face ain’t going to cut out!
Another phenotypic trait that is highly influential in politics is the quality of a candidate’s voice. In chapter 7 of my 2011 trade book The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature (p. 185), I asked readers to: “Suppose that during the last US presidential campaign , we had magically substituted Barack Obama’s voice for that of Ross Perot, who, you might recall, ran for the presidency as a third-party candidate both in 1992 and 1996. Imagine that every single syllable that Obama uttered publicly during his campaign would remain the same; however, his voice would be altered to that of Perot. Do you think that Obama still would have won the election?” Here is a short clip of Perot speaking during (I believe) the 1992 presidential campaign. On the other hand, Obama’s voice is deep and somewhat mellifluous. The Barry White and Darth Vader effects strike again (see my earlier posts on these topics here and here)!
Finally, there are the intangible peripherals such as personal charisma, which might include a bright smile. In the current context, Obama’s smile is warm and inviting. Romney’s aura comes across as strained and slightly distant. Bill Clinton was reputed to have an uncanny ability to focus on each person with whom he spoke (or at least give such an impression). Recall Machiavelli’s maxim regarding appearances: “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.” This is why all politicians seek to appear in a photo shoot carrying a baby. They wish to exude the appearance of nurturance, empathy, and kindness even if they are largely void of such qualities.
Bottom line: While policy issues matter, people vote for candidates who look and sound presidential.
This is why John McCain, Ross Perot, Paul Tsongas, and Michael Dukakis were unlikely to hold the highest political office in the world.
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