Would Anyone Vote For That Face?

The new psychology of politics and appearance.

Posted Oct 28, 2015

Chris Piascik/Flickr
Source: Chris Piascik/Flickr

Donald Trump, the frontrunner in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, is famous for ferociously attacking his political opponents.

Since entering the race Trump has sparked controversy with his comments about the appearance of rival Republican candidate, Carly Fiorina (“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”), mocked New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for visibly perspiring at a recent debate (“That room was hot. I mean, poor Chris Christie!”), and called out Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic hopeful, for her high-pitched voice (“[She’s] become very shrill”).

Trump’s comments were roundly dismissed. But is he correct to think that voters will be swayed by how a candidate looks and sounds? We like to believe that we vote only according to our values and how these match up with the political ideology of our chosen candidate.

We’re wrong.

Let’s look at three experiments, all of which were published in the last month, that shed light on the psychology of politics and appearance.

Let me see your war face

A pair of Danish political scientists asked their students to imagine that they lived in a small-scale tribal society. The students were either told that their group was at war with a bloodthirsty neighbouring tribe or that it was threatened by a flood that could only be prevented by building a dam. Next, they were shown two male faces that differed only in how dominant they appeared. Which of the two men would the volunteers prefer to lead their tribe in a time of crisis?

The dominant man was chosen as the better wartime leader by 72% of the volunteers, but only 41% thought he was the best man for the job when the tribe faced a danger unrelated to conflict.

This is all well and good, but Denmark isn’t a small-scale tribal society. What happens in the real world?

The scientists collected photographs of candidates in recent local Danish elections. All photographs were rated for apparent dominance. Lasse Laustsen, who led the study with Michael Bang Petersen, found that right-leaning male candidates fared better in the elections if they looked dominant than if they looked submissive. The opposite was true for left-wing candidates: submissive looking men won more votes than men with sturdier faces.

What about women? Female candidates, regardless of their political ideology, performed worse at the polls if they appeared dominant. Carly Fiorina and Hillary Clinton don’t share Donald Trump’s pugnacious appearance, but the research implies that this won’t deter voters.

The body politic

In 2009 Chris Christie ran for New Jersey governor and journalists wondered if he was too fat to be elected. Christie proved his critics wrong, won the election, and is now running for President. But does he appeal to the voters despite of his waistline or because of it?

To find out, psychologists from the University of Missouri, Kansas City showed their student volunteers fake profiles of political candidates. The candidates were either obese men, non-obese men, obese women, or non-obese women.

After reading the profiles, the volunteers rated how positively they felt about each candidate. But that’s not all. A device also tracked their eye movements. That’s because lead researcher Wade Elmore knew from past research that we blink more when we are in a negative emotional state. The so-called “startle eyeblink reflex” can be used to measure unconscious biases that we might not admit to in a paper-and-pencil test.

When the results were in, Elmore found that male obese candidates were evaluated more positively (an average score of 64/100) than male non-obese candidates (48/100). This was a surprising result to everyone except, perhaps, Chris Christie. But the startle reflex data told another story. Volunteers’ unconscious responses to the obese and non-obese male candidates were practically identical. So, it’s likely that there is no advantage to being an overweight male politician, but no disadvantage either.

Again, the pattern was different for female candidates. Volunteers’ conscious ratings of female candidates did not vary according to weight, but the strength of their startle reflex did. The response to obese female candidates was a whopping 110% stronger than the response to non-obese female candidates, suggesting that the volunteers felt much more negatively about overweight female candidates.

Chris Christie has little to fear from an expanding waistline, but these results suggest that Carly Fiorina or Hillary Clinton would suffer in the polls if they were to pile on the pounds. The results may also explain why only 16% of female American Senate candidates, but 41% of their male counterparts, appear overweight. Larger women may face discrimination earlier in the political process than larger men, and so never stand for election.

The voice of the people

In an ideal world, the electorate wouldn’t care how political candidates looked, but would instead attend to their arguments. But even the sound of a politician’s voice is enough to sway your vote.

Casey Klofstad, a political scientist at the University of Miami, had volunteers listen to men and women reading the phrase “I urge you to vote for me this November.” The voice clips were identical except for their pitch, which Klofstad had raised or lowered 20 Hz using computer software. He had his volunteers cast a vote for their preferred candidate.

Klofstad found that there was a bias against candidates with higher pitched voices, a bias that was stronger for female candidates. “If you’re a woman,” says Klofstad, “you have to have a lower voice to be perceived as electable.” Margaret Thatcher suspected just as much before she was elected Prime Minister, and worked with a voice coach to lower her natural pitch and increase her share of the votes.

Political animals

We like to think that we’re rational voters, that our choices are based on facts. But underneath the level of consciousness, we are influenced by biological drives that have been with us for millennia. To be astute political animals we must study these unconscious biases so that we can better pick the most competent leaders for our modern, more complex world.

References

Elmore, W., Vonnahame, E. M., Thompson, L., Filion, D., & Lundgren, J. D. (2015). Evaluating political candidates: Does weight matter? Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 1(3), 287–297.

Klofstad, C. A., Anderson, C., & Nowicki, S. (2015). Perceptions of competence, strength, and age influence voters to select leaders with lower-pitched voices. PLoS One, 10(8), e0133779.

Laustsen, L., & Petersen, M. B. (in press). Winning faces vary by ideology: How nonverbal source cues influence election and communication success in politics. Political Communication.