Going with Your Gut in the Voting Booth

Unspoken truths about which candidates we're willing to vote for.

Posted Jan 10, 2012

Like, for instance, what the candidates look like.

No, this is not another blog post about the benefits (or costs) to being beautiful, though attractiveness certainly is a characteristic that can impact an election. Just ask Richard Nixon.

But I'm not talking about physical attractiveness per se. Rather, I'm referring to our expectations of what a president usually looks like. Or what he's supposed to look like (gendered pronoun use intentional).

What is an elected official supposed to look like? In a word, powerful.

In a series of studies conducted by psychologist Nick Rule and colleagues, research participants were shown photographs of candidates who ran for U.S. Senate in the 2006 election. Respondents were asked to rate each face on different dimensions, some related to interpersonal warmth (e.g., likeability, trustworthiness) and some related to power (e.g., dominance, facial maturity).

The respondents didn't recognize these faces as belonging to Senatorial candidates–well-known faces such as Joe Lieberman's weren't included, and participants who did recognize them were excluded from analysis. Results demonstrated that these knee-jerk impressions based on simple, still-frame photos were sufficient to predict election outcomes. Specifically, the more powerful a candidate's face was perceived to be, the more likely he was to have won his election.

Attractiveness ratings did not predict election outcome. Neither did perceived warmth. (Though interestingly, in a parallel investigation in Japan, Rule and colleagues found that perceived warmth did predict election outcomes for candidates for the Japanese House of Representatives, whereas power did not. These data suggest that the cultural values associated with leadership vary between the U.S. and Japan).

A quick glance reveals a lot, even when it comes to politics. Among this U.S. sample, first impressions of how powerful a candidate appears to be predicts how likely that candidate actually is to win.

Just how well-established is our mental association between height and power? An even more recent research paper offers a surprising answer: power goes so far as to lead us to overestimate our own height.

Across three experiments, researchers manipulated the extent to power was on the mind. In one variation, they asked some participants to think about a time when they had power over someone else, and other participants to think about a time when someone else had power over them. In another study, some participants were assigned to the role of manager in a business simulation while others were assigned to the role of employee.

Respondents in the high-power conditions came to see themselves as taller. They estimated their height as greater; they even selected taller avatars to represent themselves in a computer game.

As I explore throughout my new book–and as another author once famously wrote–the little things in life often make a big difference. We might like to hold up certain decisions as too important to be colored by superficial considerations: whom we hire, whom we elect, whom we convict and send to prison. But still, the expectations and short-cuts that shape our less essential thought processes also rear their heads when the stakes are much higher.

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